NGATPANG STATE, Palau -- In 1944, faced with severed supply lines, a detachment of Japanese secret police holed up in the jungle here are thought to have decided that the easiest way to deal with a group of as many as two dozen hungry POWs, missionaries, priests, and guest workers was to execute them.
Since then, the grave site where the victims were buried has remained unfound. But for more than 14 years a volunteer organization called the BentProp Project has been hunting the Palauan jungle here for the grave site. BentProp also has been working for years in Palau to locate American military aircraft lost during World War II battles with the Japanese, as well as the remains of the airmen who flew them.
Even as BentProp searched for the grave site in the jungle it has nicknamed "Police Hill," another organization has been working in the same area to help rid Palau of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance from World Wars I and II. Known as Cleared Ground Demining, the group has removed 30,000 pieces of "UXO," more than one piece for every one of the South Pacific island nation's 21,000 citizens.
On April 1, BentProp members and a reporter from CNET stopped to survey the area, pausing by this sign, placed by Cleared Ground, designating a field thought to contain dangerous UXO.
According to testimony given by Japanese prisoners at post-World War II war tribunals, the secret police may have executed the POWs and others and then pushed them into L-shaped pits. BentProp has been looking for the grave site for 14 years, and this year, thanks to new information, has spotted a number of sites that, like this one, according to team leader Pat Scannon, have looked promising.
After BentProp's initial surveys of the sites, Cleared Ground worked for a day to see if the area contained any UXO or detectable metal that could be signs of zippers, buttons, or other human artifacts. Though it's unknown what is here, this site is full of red sticks placed by Cleared Ground, each of which represents a piece of metal at least the size of a penny and at least a foot beneath the surface.
BentProp team leader Pat Scannon (left) and Cleared Ground co-founder Stephen Ballinger examine one of the sites that was thought to be a potential grave, and which Cleared Ground technicians had surveyed for metal remnants.
The BentProp team walks into the Police Hill jungle in search of the grave site where POWs, missionaries, priests, and others may have been buried after being executed by Japanese secret police in 1944.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography development engineer Evan Walsh launches a drone atop Police Hill. He sent the vehicle out to "mow the lawn," or fly low over the jungle canopy, hoping to capture infrared imagery that could reveal metal remnants, as well as to generate a detailed topographic map of the area.
One of Cleared Ground's biggest achievements is training locals wherever it works to be unexploded-ordnance technicians. In Palau, the NGO has trained 10 locals at the highest levels, and five can work at underwater sites.
Scannon poses for a picture with a variety of different navigation tools, including a compass, and an iPad loaded with special software that the BentProp team uses to keep track of the many locations it has marked in the jungle over 14 years of work there.