By September 1944, two U. S. Navy fast carrier attacks (OPERATION DESECRATE ONE in MAR 44 AND OPERATION SNAPSHOT in JUL 44) and repeated U. S. Army Air Force B-24 missions (5th, 7th and 13th AAF) had eliminated the Japanese military capabilities on the sea and in the air around the Palau Islands. However, to insure protection of MacArthur's flank during his heralded return the Philippines, Admiral Nimitz ordered the invasion of Peleliu (OPERATION STALEMATE II). In the days preceding the invasion, preparative bombardment for the landing forces was accomplished by naval gunnery and carrier-based units. Enemy anti-aircraft fire was formidable and several aircraft were reported shot down over or near Peleliu during all three fast carrier attacks. After the invasion by the First Marine Division, the island unexpectedly remained in enemy hands for several months (instead of the predicted several days) and was subjected to fierce artillery bombardment. Several American aircraft were reported to have been shot down near Peleliu, and the fates of these airmen have never been determined. At least two of these aircraft were reported to crash on Peleliu, behind enemy lines: an SB2C Helldiver (2-man crew, MAR 44) and a TBM-1C (3-man crew, SEP 44).
In 1994, while visiting Peleliu, Dan Bailey introduced me to an Australian named Robert Kelly who took us to Pope's Ridge (formerly also Hill 100 and Walt's Ridge) to see a main landing gear wheel and engine of what he thought was a Corsair. Later, another historian and friend, Eric Mailander identified this and other wreckage in the area as possibly that of an SB2C Helldiver. As part of the P-MAN V agenda, we decided to revisit the known debris field (strewn all over Pope's Ridge and the Horseshoe) and see if we could make a final determination as to type and extent of debris field. What we found surpassed any expectations we had when we landed on Peleliu's coral runway.
The P-MAN V team traveled twice to Peleliu. During the first trip (5-6 MAR 03), we climbed to the top of Pope's Ridge and did a search of the immediate area and found considerably more debris than expected. With permission from Mr. Tangie Hesus, our Peleliu guide, we conducted a superficial excavation of the wheel area (revealing an entire main landing gear assembly, Fig 2-4) and the engine area. Review of the main landing gear showed it to be that of an Avenger. Team member Dan O'Brien made the critical discovery when he found an identification plate near the engine identifying it as a TBM-1C Avenger (Fig 2-5). Digging carefully around the engine hub confirmed that the propeller was a Hamilton-Standard, used on Avengers but not on Helldivers. We also found one 0.50 caliber machine gun imbedded into the coral cliff below the landing gear. Our superficial search found what looked like a few small bone fragments nearby but we left these alone.
We decided that since this aircraft was identifiable from the plate and since it was highly likely the crew remained MIA, Bodies Not recovered (BNR), in this area, we held an American flag ceremony in honor of the crew on top of Pope's Ridge, adjacent to the engine. I presented the flag for safekeeping to team-member Flip Colmer, LTCDR, USN (Ret), pending final identification (NOTE: we will present this flag to family members, if we are able to locate them).
The orientation of the engine on the hillside indicated it had crashed, likely under full power (blades not feathered and severely twisted) from a southeasterly heading. Reasoning the engine assembly had the greatest mass and, hence traveled the furthest, the team divided and began walking along Pope's Ridge toward the south and east looking for further debris. The steep coral ridges, once denuded by artillery and aerial bombardments, have now become overgrown with dense jungle, with the added concern of huge quantities of unexpended ordnance still present (as the battlefields on Peleliu have been left as they were fought). Spread out as much as we could, and staying in touch with our field radios, we began picking up debris within 200 yards of the engine but it was fragmented and quite dispersed. Throughout the first day we found debris spread across Pope's Ridge, the Horseshoe and the Five Brothers (Pope's Ridge and the Five Brothers form the two cave-laden coral walls of the death trap called Horseshoe in which many American Marines and, later, Army troops died in fierce combat with the entrenched Japanese). Our guide and local expert, Mr. Tangie Hesus, took us to the northern-most end of the Horseshoe to show us a "tail" and a "wing" which he had been told were parts of a Helldiver. When we saw the "tail" (vertical stabilizer of an Avenger), incredibly, the painted U. S. Navy Bureau Number was still intact ( Bu No 16956) - this meant that we could positively identify this specific aircraft and its crew, which we have already done with the help of Mr. Chris McDermott from CILHI (we now know that the aviator, ENS Donald E. Baxter (299549) and one airman, ARN1 Arthur C. Miller (2234574), remain MIA, BNR, while the headless remains (? possible execution) of the other crew member, AON2 Wesley R. Stuart (8857537) were found in 1945 after the fighting ceased). Next taken to the "wing" by Tangie, we later identified it as the folding outer portion of the starboard wing specifically belonging to a TBM-1C Avenger. We returned on 10 MAR 03 and identified and mapped additional Avenger debris (along with remnants of napalm canisters probably from Marine Corsairs) near Hill 140. At all points where debris was found, GPS readings were made (but at some sites not obtainable due to dense jungle canopy). We have concluded that this Avenger exploded in midair, probably during a steep dive run from the northwest to southeast, resulting in the broad debris field. Based on findings on Pope's Ridge, we believe that at least part of the cockpit area may have traveled along with the engine and impacted together on the top of Pope's Ridge.
Finally, we found a pile of several human bones that workers at the gravel pit had collected from this area and had thoughtfully brought to one place. Because of our concern that these remains might get lost at this construction site, we photographed them and, respectfully, delivered them to Tangie Hesus who deposited them in the Peleliu Museum until a further disposition can be made.
Of particular concern to the P-MAN V team is that
the engine and what we believe may be at least part of the cockpit area
(in part because we did find one bone fragment nearby) are immediately
adjacent to a coral excavation pit. Because of the possibility that crew
remains may still be in the area, as with the MAJ Nelson's Corsair, I
have notified the Palauan authorities and U. S. agencies with the request
that the site around the engine be protected, at least until CILHI and
other authorities can determine what the next steps should be. We have
recently received word that this area is being considered for protection
from the Palauan Historical Preservation Office.
Page last modified 17 April 2005