War came to the Pacific on December 7, 1941 when the Imperial Japanese Air Force struck at the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii at 7:55am. One hour later, Japanese bombers based in Saipan launched a heavy attack on the island of Guam. Within six months Japan had conquered Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands of the Solomons, New Britain, New Guinea and were aiming to take Australia and New Zealand after the destruction of the US Navy.
By the time the war ended with the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the conflict had sprawled across one third of the Earth's surface and cost the lives of five million people.
Caught in the middle were the islanders upon whose homelands - an in whose waters - some of the bloodiest battles were fought. Today, the remains of the aircraft, tanks, pillboxes and concrete gun emplacements are silent reminders of the battles fought over the possession of islands and atolls. Offshore, in the warm, clear waters where fish move in shoals through the twisted bones of landing craft, holidaying scuba divers have a virtual military museum to explore.
They can touch the tanks and heavy weapons that never made it to the beach. But most poignant of all are the remains of shot down US and Japanese aircraft. Most of the fuselages may be gone, but their engines and bent props stick out from the seabed like so many graveyard markers. Others, like 'Barbara III', the Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber flown by Lieutenant George Bush, lie in deeper waters, though are still in reasonable shape.
But it is on the relatively tiny amount of land within the vast Pacific battle zone that hundreds of P-40 Kittyhawk, P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt Fighters, Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, Oscar fighters and Val dive bombers await rediscovery.
Now completely overgrown by thick vines and jungle creepers, they lie untouched since the day they plunged into the tropical forests. The numbers are enormous. Last year, there were still more than 300 aircraft missing from the US Fifth Air Force alone. Their remains, undisturbed for over 60 years, an be found from New Guinea to the Philippines.
Today all that's left of once-proud air forces are the sparse survivors parked in museums and a few spruced-up veterans rolled out at air shows. When the war ended, little thought was given to preserving the weapons that had won victory for the Allies.
Now thanks to teams of Pacific aviation experts, progress is being made to find war relics. Equipped with Japanese and US military records, statements from survivors and information gleaned from natives in the area, these enthusiasts hack through steaming jungles, wade through mosquito-ridden swamps and scale steep mountain ranges. And their finds have been spectacular: a Japanese Zero that flew in the Pearl Harbour attack and aircraft of the ill-fated Fifth Air Force 'Black Sunday' mission which were lost on April 16,1944 when 37 US aircraft disappeared after bad weather cut them off from their bases at Gusap, Nadzab and Saidor.
Among the wreck trackers is Patricia Gaffeny, daughter of a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot, who helped trace her father to New Guinea. His plane was found in the wooded Finisterre Mountains and the remains of her dad were brought home for a military burial.
Nadzab in New Guinea was one of the largest air bases during the war in the South Pacific. It was here that chief aviation historian for wreck hunters, Pacific Ghosts, Michael Claringbould, foudn the wrecks of two Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and three P-47s which had slammed into a mountain range near the airfield. Michael has a sixth sense when on the trail and has scores of finds to his credit. In 1999, in recognition of his recovery work, Michael was made an Honourary member of the Zero Fighter Pilots Association by former Japanese air ace Saburo Sakai.
One of the pleasures he shares with the fellow aviation sleuths, is the thrill of reuniting a pilot with a plane long believed destroyed. A classic case is Richard Smith, from Alabama, who in 1943, piloted the P-38 'Japanese Sandman II' in the 39th Fighter Squadron based at Port Moresby in New Guinea. Still in his mid-20s, he flew 195 missions and is credited with seven kills represented by the Rising Sun flags painted just below the cockpit. Through an administrative shuffle on December 4, 1943, the aircraft had Lieutenant Dawson of the 431st Fighter Squadron, 475 Group at the controls when the plane developed engine trouble and was forced to ditch in the jungle near Popondetta.
Bruised and shaken, Dawson made his way back to base. Smith was now obliged to share another twin engined P-38 with a fellow pilot named Ken Sparks. Sparks, being an easy going guy, agreed to have 'their' aircraft re-christened Japanese Sandman III. Smith missed his old plane. He'd named it after a popular song of the time and it was his favourite to fly. Recalling those days from his home in Alabama recently, he says it was because the Lightning was fast!
Last year, there were still more than 300 aircraft missing from the US Fifth Air Force alone. Their remains, undisturbed for over 60 years, an be found from New Guinea to the Philippines.
When Smith was told 'Japanese Sandman II' had been located after 60 years, he couldn't believe the news. He was asked if he'd like to see his old fighter again? Smith, now grey-haired and a pensioner, couldn't wait. Flying in to Seven Mile Strip near Port Moresby in New Guinea with his wife, he found the city had changed - except for the downtown natives. Just as he remembered from wartime, "They were still chewing betel nut and their mouths were all red." He tried to find his old camp, but nothing remained except the Officer's Club, now a restaurant and a bar for locals.
Boarding a small prop-plane, he flew with the guys who had found the wreck - ace searchers Bruce Hoy and Dave Pennyfather - to Popondetta where they trekked through the vegetation to where 'Japanese Sandman II' lay, mangled but with her markings still clearly visible. Beneath the cockpit was painted 'Lt RE Smith' and the mini Japanese flags denoting seven aerial victories.
Clearly moved, as the memories came flooding back, the old aviator climbed into the ruined cockpit. Smith, nicknamed 'Smiffy' by his buddies, looked out through the shattered cockpit frame. What could he hear? The rattle of cannon fire.... the distorted voices of squadron comrades warning of attacking Zeros?
Smith took his photos, ran his fingers once more over his name on the side, then glancing back only once, adjusted his baseball cap and slowly made his way back to the 4WD. The sight of this veteran fighter ace left the onlookers misty-eyed.
Yet there was a final twist for Smith on his unique day of nostgia.He had barely settled into his seat on the returning commercial airliner flight when he was approached by a young stewardess. It seems someone had whispered to the jet's pilot that this passenger was a bit of a flier himself. Would he like to sit up front with the crew? Smith says, "It was a marvellous experience. It made the perfect ending to a day I shall never forget."
Elsewhere, the hunt goes on. Most of the aircraft were downed through enemy action. Others ditched through mechanical failure or weather, and many were destroyed or damaged when their bases were bombed. But, whatever the cause, each plane from either side classified Missing In Action is today regarded as an historical treasure and will be traced. Why bother recovering these wrecks, often at considerable risk?
Today all that's left of once-proud air forces are the sparse survivors parked in museums and a few spruced-up veterans rolled out at air shows. When the war ended, little thought was given to preserving the weapons that had won victory for the Allies. Enemy equipment was simply collected and scrapped. Hundreds of US aircraft ended their days in vast desert bone-yards in Arizona, lined up in rows stretching to the horizon to await an inglorious end recycled as teapots and fridges.
Fortunately, what remains of the military hardware - much photographed by tourists - are part of an historical legacy, protected and classified byt he US as a 'national cultural heritage.' And for the Japanese in particular, these ghosts of war are shrines to the memory of their recent ancestors.
Incidentally, the islands hold another wartime legacy: "Boonie Dogs" are direct descendants of the pets brought ashore by the US troops as lucky mascots when they assaulted the beaches.
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