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)
Air & Space Magazine

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.

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