When asked, most people associate archeology with professorial discoveries of gold-encased mummies in ancient dusty tombs, funded by private contributions, various governments or National Geographic, and accompanied by the bright lights of glowing media attention. This story is quite different. It starts with a small, loosely knit group of friends, historians and scuba divers who individually and together, over a period of over two decades, have gone looking for (and found) ships sunk throughout Micronesia during World War II. Early on, my story took a turn, when I switched from searching for ships to searching for planes - more specifically, American aircraft shot down by occupying Japanese forces during fierce combat over the Palau Islands between 1944 and 1945. Over the ensuing half century, these planes and their crews - and even the battles they fought in the Palaus - have become all but forgotten, except, perhaps, by family and the living veterans who flew missions with and knew these crews.
Finding airplanes that have been missing for fifty years does not occur by just jumping into the water. The ocean is just too big and planes shot down tend to land in less-than-convenient places. By necessity, I have become more of a detective than a diver, looking in dusty archives all over the United States and Palau and interviewing the folks who were there. This has become the most unexpectedly meaningful part of the adventure: talking with and getting to know the airmen who witnessed the horror of watching their friends shot out of the sky, and talking with Palauans who were caught between two warring nations, who remember these missions from the receiving end. I feel privileged to have received many stories from both Palauans and Americans who, for the most part, are amazed anyone still cares, except for others who were there at the time. On a few important occasions, their stories have even provided priceless leads of where to look for missing aircraft.
Having the opportunity to update and in some instances correct the historical record has been gratifying. Reporting my findings to the veterans who were there has evoked mutually surprising emotional responses from both them and me. But it is the adventures that have kept me going. On two trips I went by myself, hiring a guide and translator to help me. On three other trips, I have traveled with a team, as the nature of the exploration was beyond what a single individual could do alone. My wife Susan went with me on the first trip and was instrumental in finding my very first aircraft wreck. Chip and Pam Lambert (Fremont, CA) have been heavily involved in the team trips, along with Dan Bailey (Redding, CA). Whether alone or as a member of a team, it has been always exciting. There was the time I got lost in a mangrove swamp with two (not one!) guides looking for a Marine F4U Corsair or the time I hung myself outside of a low flying Cessna trying to photograph some inaccessible wrecks; then there was the episode where a couple of us, while tracking down a new lead, stumbled across a mine full of money (yet another story).
By no means is this story over. Many mysteries remain in Palau - for example, the missing Navy wingman of a former American president; two Army Air Corps B-24 bombers still missing along with their crews; a Marine Corsair that was discovered in 1947 but has disappeared in the meantime; and a Marine Corsair that disappeared over Babeldaob on the last fighting day of World War II. There are many more. As for media attention: well, on one occasion some of us had our 15 seconds of fame on "Nightline," but that's only a small part of the story. Mostly, the pictures taken of us have been taken by us.
Continue: The Past