Above & Beyond: Recovery: Bataan

Above & Beyond: Recovery: Bataan

A deformed machine gun from the Nakajima Ki-27 spoke volumes to the author (center). Kevin Hamdorf

Two fighters went after each other at midafternoon on February 9, 1942, with machine guns blazing. They were scant feet above the dense jungle enveloping the Mariveles volcano on the Philippines’ Bataan peninsula. Sergeant Toshisada Kurosawa, Imperial Japanese Army, was flying a Nakajima Ki-27 “Nate”; U.S. Army Air Forces Lieutenant Earl R. Stone was in a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

The two airplanes circled, popping in and out of a cloud layer blanketing the peak. Finally the Ki-27, having emerged from the mist, slipped behind the P-40, trailing white smoke. As both aircraft approached Cogon Tarac, a spiny ridge that juts from the volcano, red tracers arced toward the P-40. The airplanes disappeared into the murk.

Reports suggested the two aircraft may have collided in the clouds. When the American pilot failed to return to his base, a search party was sent up Cogon Tarac. The searchers found the wreckage of the Ki-27 and thought they could see what remained of the P-40, but could not reach it.

Over the decades, attempts to locate the P-40 crash site failed, much to the disappointment of the Stone family. Stone’s younger brother Westcott, himself a World War II combat veteran, had promised his late father that he would bring his brother home. In 2006, Wes Stone, having learned of my interest and experience in aircraft archaeology, enlisted my help.

After an airplane crashes, aircraft archeologists deal with the effects of compression, tension, shear, torque, and their combinations. Every piece of wreckage holds a clue to the airplane’s last moments. Our role is to find the fragments and put the story together.

Spike Nasmyth, an American prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and Australian photographer Kevin Hamdorf organized a search team at Subic Bay. On February 6, 2008, I joined them and our guides. Our group of 18 headed south in convoy and ascended the volcano.

After five tough hours, two Philippine Aeta guides and I were the first to top the ridge. We offloaded our gear. I put on gloves and a hydration system and followed lead guide Eric Flores over the side.

Descending the 45- to 50-degree slope, we had to keep a tight grip on sawgrass or shrub. Eighty feet below, the ground leveled out onto a narrow ledge amid a thicket of saplings. There was a radial engine, single-bank, nine-cylinder, the type used by the Ki-27, lying on its back.

I could see no large pieces of fuselage or wings nearby, so the site had likely been disturbed. We climbed down and I eased along the escarpment in both directions, trying to define a debris pattern. No matter how well a site has been scavenged, pieces too small to profitably salvage usually remain. But I found not a shred of material in either direction.

By now the porters had cleared vegetation from the engine. Both propellers had separated from the housing along the rotation axis, indicating the engine was still providing power at impact. The structure below and aft of the hub had been shoved inward, causing the engine mounts to fail, and the powerplant had somersaulted to its final resting place. A .50-caliber armor-piercing bullet had penetrated the gear box in front of the engine and jammed, unexploded, between two metal plates—a 90-degree deflection. It had no doubt caused an oil leak, and the spraying oil hitting the hot cylinders would have produced the white smoke that had been reported. Until the oil was depleted, engine power would have been unaffected.

My guide found one of the airplane’s 7.7-mm machine guns: soon, the other was recovered. A member of a later expedition found an expended 7.7-mm shell case under the engine.

The main debris field began 10 feet below the engine. Just under the peat-like surface, pocked with volcanic rock, lay metal fragments, wires, and bits of cable. A shredded fragment of a main gear tire turned up, showing evidence of fire and bearing a single clue—the Japanese symbols for “Bridgestone”—signifying the tire had been made by the Bridgestone Corporation in Japan. As I cleared away soil, a piece of curved canopy glass emerged on end, indicating it had penetrated the soil with high energy. This had to be the initial impact point.

Nine feet below the previous finds, the tail skid appeared, jammed into peat between two boulders. Using my compass, I figured that for the skid to make its way into the notch between the boulders, relatively undamaged, the aircraft heading must have been 080 degrees plus or minus five.

Using the tail skid, engine, guns, and cockpit fragments, aligned in an area 35 feet long, I determined the fuselage orientation, approximate aircraft heading, and initial impact point.

The next morning, along with Aeta guides Gary Montemayor and his son, Noel, I outlined the area where I thought we might find remains. We dug by hand to avoid starting an avalanche. I found a boot legging, then another. A boot heel turned up, then fragments of a skeleton.

Meanwhile, guide Jon Mar Benito led a second search party farther up the ridge looking for the P-40 site. Hours later they returned, dehydrated, exhausted, and empty-handed.

That night I slept fitfully in my tent with the bones of Sergeant Kurosawa wrapped beside me. Outside, the wind howled while the Aetas crouched behind a boulder, trying to keep candles lit to appease the gods for disturbing the dead.

By sunup, thoroughly chilled and short of water and food, we returned to civilization, bringing with us the sergeant’s remains, to be turned over to Japanese authorities, plus numerous parts found at the Ki-27 site.

On Nasmyth’s patio at Subic Bay that evening, I assembled the Nate remnants. The barrel of one machine gun was curled like a pig’s tail. Its muzzle showed no abrasion, indicating  that at impact, it had stuck firmly into the peat. The other gun had a smooth downward bend. Its muzzle showed abrasion, suggesting sliding contact with a boulder. The type of deformation indicated that at impact the barrels had been very hot. The weapon with the upward curl had been mounted on the right side of the engine cowl, the downward-bent weapon on the left. Reverse the positioning of the guns and you’d have to figure they had bent in the direction occupied by the engine block, likely an impossibility. For the guns to bend in opposite directions, the airplane probably  was rolling right at impact. During his pull-up, the pilot was trying to align with the ridge. He nearly made it: 87 more feet and he would have cleared it. For the barrels to twist in the fashion they did, the pilot had to have been firing moments before impact. Kurosawa had likely been in a left turn while firing at something—the P-40? Since the machine guns’ empty shells are ejected through a chute, the discovery of the expended 7.7-mm round confirmed firing just prior to impact. Kurosawa then saw either his opponent hit the ridge or the ridge itself. If at that point Kurosawa had completed his firing pass, his nose would have been to the right of Stone’s aircraft when he saw the impact or ridge. In that case, the P-40 should be located slightly left of and lower than the Ki-27 crash site. 

For decades, more than a dozen teams had looked for the P-40 in the wrong area. But before we could investigate, the rainy season set in.

After the ridge dried, I got an e-mail from Nasmyth dated Feb. 12, 2009:

Ralph, we sent Gary and 6 Aeta tribesmen up the mountain Monday the 9th of Feb, the 67th anniversary of the dogfight. They have found the plane.... I think this has to be Earl Stone’s site, can’t have been too many other planes out there within 400 yards of the confirmed Nate site.

On March 17, the search team and I began a two-day climb and descent on the Mariveles slopes. Some 350 yards beneath and to the left of the Nate wreckage lay the impact crater and debris of the P-40 flown by Earl Stone. We made some test digs, gathered parts to confirm the find, and notified the Joint POW/Missing-in-Action Accounting Command in Hawaii to begin the recovery of his remains.

The author of two books on search expeditions, Ralph Wetterhahn has appeared in numerous documentaries on aircraft archeology.

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