Philippines: Ghosts of WW2
The Spamhog - 2002
Posted: 10 September
It's not even 8 a.m.
and already the sun is trying to burn a hole in my head, thinning
hair and all. I stare at that angry fireball in the sky and try
to find some shade under one of the awnings on the 36 foot Banca,
which is barreling out of Davao's Santa Anna Wharf at an amazing
7 knots, only because we have the tide and the wind. The cantankerous
old diesel that started life in a school bus is roaring its protest
as we fight through the normal morning water traffic in Southern
Mindanao's largest port city. Smaller fishing Bancas, a tugboat,
a few larger freighters unloading goods. Another big cargo ship
is in the channel beating towards the other side of the wharf. We
bob on the wake of the large ship and toot our little whistle. A
Banca is an outrigger type vessel, supported by two bamboo arms
on either side to ballast it in the sometimes-rough waters of the
Philippines islands where storms are frequent and reefs pop up everywhere.
With me is Tom, our dive
master, an American and former missionary, Barry, a production manager
for a Stateside cell phone company doing business here, two Danish
tourists Barry found in a bar and, of course, Manny, our Filipino
Navigator, helmsman, deck hand, translator and cook, grinning and
shaking his head at the silliness of so many white guys in one place.
"A Missionary, a
Homicide cop, a businessman, a Filipino and two Danes are stranded
on a desert island
. All we need is a Rabbi and a one eyed
hooker for a good punch line," says Tom.
"Hold this line,
I'll punch ya," says Barry, waving around a bowline.
What has us in good spirits
this morning and chattering like a bunch of excited school boys
is the possibility that we may find one of the elusive "Japanese
Zero's" shot down during WW2. A mutual friend, another expat,
says he accidentally found the wreck. Tom has the coordinates and
we're hoping to get lucky. It is one of several aircraft shot down
in the gulf during the Japanese resistance to the landing of US
forces in May of 1945, as the latter mopped up the Japanese still
holding this part of Mindanao. The Japanese airbase at nearby Toril
is a documented fact. There are still many eyewitnesses to the "dogfights"
that took place and a few Guerillas who boast of their scars.
While there are numerous
other wrecks in the area, mainly ships, well documented and somewhat
of an attraction for tourists, no one has located a plane, especially
the steel hawk of the Japanese imperial air force, the dreaded 'zero'
(engine by Mitsubishi). Yeah, I'm a big WW2 buff and living here
in the Philippines in which there is plenty of evidence of that
conflict, and, as I have said, numerous living witnesses to the
events and facts of history.
I think the first I ever
heard of the Jap 'zero' was from my Uncle, who had participated
in, and survived, the battle of Leyte Gulf. As a small boy I was
awestruck by his tales of how the planes with their distinctive
squared off wings dived out of the sun to strafe his ship with their
7.7 machine guns, the distinctive roaring sound striking terror
in all who heard it. He also relayed how Kamikazes hit the ship,
killing lots of sailors.
Hearing those tales is
what developed my interest in the killing machines of war, but more
specifically in the men who fought with them. Now, here was my chance
to actually find one, touching a piece of history. So here I am,
braving the scorching sun, dodging cargo ships and listening to
Off to our right is Samal
island, with its white sand shimmering like sugar in the hot sun;
palm trees sway in the early morning breeze and the water looks
to be a deep turquoise; quite a sight indeed. We head out further
into the gulf. Few fishermen are out this morning; most throw their
nets at night. Manny says we are in some deep water, too deep for
diving. Tom signals us to check our gear. This is one thing there
is no joking about; diving is a dangerous prospect in these waters.
Remember, there isn't
much of a coast guard in this country, no rescue ships or even helicopters.
My slow ass Banca would take about an hour to get us to help; a
case of the bends would surely be fatal before we could get to the
only decompression chamber in Davao. Add to that the strange undercurrent
and sudden drop offs and you have a recipe for disaster; so extra
care is taken.
We use the buddy system,
even though the depth is only about 80 feet. We carefully time our
descents and ascents, making sure we have buoyancy. All this is
done to avoid the bends, which would spell an agonizing death before
we could reach help. The two teams will be made up of Tom and Barry,
each with one of the Danish tourists. Even though the pair has dived
here before, Tom takes no chances.
Tom outlines the general
search area and sets the time limit plus the rally point. I pull
out a few "diver down" buoys, make sure they are anchored
and then throw them in the water. The yellow anchor lines will be
visible in the crystal clear water and will generally mark the "grid"
to be searched.
With everybody geared
up and ready, Tom and his partner Ian slip over the side. Barry
and his partner are next. I won't be going down this time. My ears
don't take the depth well, so I'm in reserve in case something happens,
or, if they find the wreck, then I'll go have a look. But I just
keep watch for now. I forgot to mention that one of the hazards
in this part of Mindanao is Pirates, and not the kind who duplicate
CDs. They are mainly interested in stealing the catch of returning
fishermen, but will try for a Banca of this size, more interested
in the engine that they can strip and sell, plus our diving gear.
They are more commonly found forty miles to the south, but we're
still cautious. Throw in a few other wild cards in the deal like
cyanide and dynamite fishing and their attending unexploded home
made bombs and you have some idea why you're not in Kansas any more,
Even though the boat
thieves know about Manny (an ex marine) and me, that we are armed
and they generally let us alone, my inbred paranoia has my head
in swivel mode; I see nothing. Manny shrugs and lights a cigarette,
while I scan the water with a set of binoculars.
Tom and his buddy surface
first. I look anxiously at Tom as he shakes his head slowly
no luck. A few minutes later Barry and his partner pop up
results, thumbs down. I try not to let my disappointment show. Shortly
we have all divers aboard, grunting and gasping as we help them
out of their gear. Good visibility but wrong area. We sit down,
draw a few sketches and look around. We're close to the right place
but unless we're on top of the wreck, it's like a proverbial needle
in a haystack.
Manny says there is a
shallower reef nearby, closer to the 70 feet the source relayed.
So we decide to move. Everyone rechecks their gear and Tom goes
over mine. I decide to go down this time and Barry will keep watch.
We anchor in the targeted spot and throw out the 'diver down' buoys.
We go over the plan and perimeters of the search area a few more
times. After about an hour, we divide up into teams and I enter
the water with Tom as a partner. Now I'm no expert diver, far from
it. I really don't like it and getting below 40 feet bothers my
ears, but the chance that the largely unexplored prize may be below
has me charged up. I begin a very slow swim to the bottom.
It's around 70 feet and
my ears begin to protest, but I ignore the discomfort and press
on. I concentrate on the bottom, looking for the tell- tale shape
of a coral encrusted wreck. This one is supposed to be tangled up
with fishing nets, which was what piqued our contact's curiosity
when he located it. We divide up the grid; Tom looks right while
I look left. We're swimming slowly side by side; visibility good,
but not great.
The coral reefs here
are truly beautiful, as anyone who has ever dived in the Philippines
can tell you. The fan and brain corals form some fantastic underwater
tableaus, multicolored fish dart about as we invade their world.
Suddenly, off to my left, I see a big lump, and cue Tom. We head
over for a look. My heart is pumping; if this is it, these guys
will never shut me up!
No luck; just a strange
mass. We probe it for a few minutes to make sure it isn't something
else. We head back and get on course with the grid. A few more minutes
and my ears tell me my dive is over. I signal Tom and point to my
ears. He gives me an OK and pantomimes a slow assent; I know he
wants to stay longer. I see the dark shadow of the boat above; my
ears tell me I'm going to feel this one for a few days.
I break the surface and
Barry looks as anxious as I did. I shake my head and his face falls.
I sit on one of the Banca's ballast arms with Tom, waiting on our
two guests. A bit later, the Danes surface, zero on the zero. Everyone
gets aboard and out of the gear. The Danes are happy, but slightly
disappointed. As a booby prize, I suggest we take them to the shallows
off Toril where they can see the wrecks of four American LST, used
to ferry troops ashore. The water is shallow enough to snorkel.
On the way to the site,
we have a short meal, sandwiches and local bananas; Manny, of course,
has his rice. We tell our guests the history of the wreck we're
about to see; the same craft that landed on Normandy's shores. The
craft appear to have come under heavy artillery fire from hidden
shore batteries. As we approach the target area, we are greeted
by a magnificent view, one that might have impressed GIs almost
sixty years ago. Mount Apo, an extinct volcano that is the Republics
highest point, rises like a colossus from the deep green/blue sea.
Palm dotted plains and plantations stretch out on the flats and
I'm sure that view was
very different in May of 1945, with shore batteries and hidden bunkers
(still visible) spitting sheets of flame and iron at you. Our minds'
eyes conjure up different versions, but one thing is certain; it
took tremendous courage to face that onslaught and more to beat
it back. It's low tide when we arrive and the wrecks are in about
15 feet of water. In some places you can make out distinct long
shapes from the coral and sea organisms that have laid their claim.
Our two guests snorkel around the wreck for a bit, obviously excited.
I've been here many times
before, but I am always respectful and reflective. I can't help
but wonder how many American soldiers met their end here. Records
are very sketchy and official versions are back in Washington DC,
so getting documentation is a bit difficult. Most of what we know
has been pieced together by what we find and more importantly, coaxing
facts from surviving eyewitnesses. Many were children during that
awful period; older adults tend to be a bit hazy as memories fade.
Our two Danes are aboard,
so its "Miller time' or should I say "San Miguel"
time. We pop a few cold ones from the cooler and celebrate
I don't know what. We failed in our attempt to locate the mysterious
plane, but perhaps we feel being privileged to have been able to
try. Who knows, maybe next time out we'll get to write a missing
page from history. An earache is a very small price to pay.
Author: The Spamhog