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)
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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.

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