To find lost jungle graves, beware of unexploded WWII bombs

The BentProp Project has been searching the Palauan jungle for years to find the remains of POWs and others executed by the Japanese. Unexploded WWII bombs make it a risky quest.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

A potential site in the Palauan jungle for graves filled with American POWs, Jesuit missionaries, and others executed by the Japanese during World War II. It's littered with metal -- signified by a red stick for each piece detected -- that could be buttons, zippers, or even bomb fragments. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NGATPANG STATE, Palau -- I'm walking down a steep, muddy trail into the thick jungle, very aware that I need to stay on the narrow path marked by yellow-topped sticks. Step outside those markers, I was warned, and there's a chance my legs could get blown off.

This is Police Hill, a misbegotten section of jungle on Palau's Babeldaob Island. It was here that the Japanese military housed prisoners during World War II and prepared for what was expected to be an eventual American invasion in the north of this island nation.

Because of the fear of invasion and fierce American bombing by sea and air in 1944, Police Hill is littered with UXO, or unexploded ordnance. So much so, I'm told, that no matter how much effort is put into getting rid of it, these bombs will never all be found. Everyone in my group had been asked for their blood type, just in case of an explosive misstep, and I was the only one who didn't know his type. I tried not to think about that as I walked deeper into the humid jungle.

In Palau, lost WWII graves and unexploded bombs (pictures)

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Police Hill is a nickname, bestowed on the area by members of the BentProp Project, a volunteer organization that for years has been conducting annual expeditions to Palau, located 1,000 miles west of Manila in the Pacific Ocean, to search for American combatants missing in action, on land and in the sea, since World War II. During the war, the area was home to a detachment of Japanese kempei-tai, or secret police, as well as American POWs, Jesuit missionaries, Catholic priests, and laborers from India, Korea, and China.

Over the years, BentProp has found 36 long-missing American planes in Palau and helped start the process that led to dozens of families of missing airmen finally learning the fate of their loved ones.

Watch this: A walk among hidden graves and WWII bombs

But here on Police Hill BentProp has come in search of something more grim than wrecks of planes hidden in the depths of Palau's famous coral reefs. During this first week of April, eight volunteers from the group are on the lookout for a mass grave, the final resting place of some or all of those POWs. I've come with them, dressed to cover as much of my skin as possible to ward off mosquitoes, mammoth spiders, and the wretched, rash-causing poison tree.

Standing in a clearing alongside the road at the top of the hill, BentProp founder Pat Scannon told me that after World War II, Japanese prisoners testifying at war-crimes tribunals reported burying people in the Police Hill area. Their captors, faced with severed supply lines, and short on food and water, may have decided executions were a simple answer to the problem of feeding hungry prisoners and laborers, says Scannon, a 67-year-old doctor and scientist with a gentle face, who's wearing what seems to be his standard outfit of hiking shirt, cargo pants, a weathered ball cap, and a red bandana tied under his white beard.

Information from a number of sources, including Japanese testimony to post-World War II war crimes tribunals, suggested that the missing POWs, missionaries, priests and others may have been buried by the Japanese in an L-shaped pit. Though it's unclear if this is the site, BentProp members considered this L-shaped depression a potential location for the grave. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"A number of captured Japanese who participated in the executions described lining up the prisoners, or at least some of the prisoners, in front of an L-shaped pit, executing them, and then throwing their bodies into this pit and covering it," Scannon said.

For 14 years, BentProp has been trying to find this so-called "L-shaped depression." On April 1, the group, led by Scannon, but also including an all-star team of ex- and current Marines; world-class skydivers and scuba divers; a commercial airline pilot; a detective novelist; and a forensic anthropologist; may have finally found the site.

To be precise, they spotted six areas with the characteristics of the reported grave, including at least two that can fairly be described as L-shaped. Because BentProp doesn't do the excavating itself, it will be up to a US military organization known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to decide whether any of the sites are the real deal.

But first, they need to be deemed safe from UXO.

'We will never get rid of it all'

That's where Stephen Ballinger, and a British-based NGO called Cleared Ground Demining enters the picture. For five years, the organization Ballinger co-founded with his wife Cassandra has been toiling in Palau, helping to remedy the problem of unexploded ordnance. UXO is also known as "explosive remnants of war," says Ballinger, a former British Army combat engineer.

Wearing a company-branded short-sleeve khaki shirt, army boots, and khaki shorts, Ballinger is both jovial and profane. He's also extremely serious about what he does, and justifiably proud of what his organization has achieved in Palau. Currently funded by the Australian government, Cleared Ground had just disposed of its 30,000th piece of UXO -- that comes out to more than one for each of Palau's 21,000 citizens. Yet it's a problem that won't go away. "Within the next three years, we should have pretty much [cleared] about 70 percent to 75 percent of the ordnance contamination," Ballinger said. But, "we will never get rid of it all."

Still, Ballinger wants Palauans to live free of danger from UXO. "We all have the right to live in safety and security," Ballinger added. "I wouldn't expect it back in London...to take your children to the forest and stumble across a live grenade and perhaps get your legs blown off or your arm blown off."

Another point of pride for Ballinger is training locals to deal with UXO contamination in their own countries. After five years here, he's now trained 10 Palauans with the highest level of explosive ordnance. Five of them can work underwater, sometimes near popular scuba sites, where plenty of unexploded bombs and other ordnance can be found.

Cleared Ground has also trained more than 100 locals in Guinea Bissau, West Africa, the NGO's previous posting.

In the Palauan jungle, Ballinger's team is taking a careful, methodical approach to clearing the sites BentProp wants investigated. First, technicians get on their hands and knees and do what he calls a "surface clear," meaning they take a stick and slowly strip the topsoil bit by bit. Once that's done, they use a metal detector calibrated to find any piece of metal as big or bigger than a penny. It's "very time consuming" work, Ballinger said.

Red sticks

Returning to Police Hill the next day, we find that Cleared Ground has gone over each of the six sites. Even from a distance you can see evidence they're littered with metal.

Cleared Ground has marked every spot with a metal signature with a red-topped stick. The sticks number in the dozens. Scannon is impressed, and excited - though that doesn't necessarily mean that these are the graves. There could be all kinds of metal beneath the ground. While there may be zippers or buttons or priests' crosses, the detectors could just as easily have reacted to metallic fragments left from the intense bombing of the area 70 years ago. Until the sites are excavated, it won't be possible to tell if they've found human remains or not.

To the ever-patient Scannon, though, it hardly matters whether a site of interest hides an MIA. If it does, then that person's family is one step closer to knowing their fate. If not, he said, "We know not to look there anymore and we just move on to the next one."

"We've already invested 14 years in this area," added Scannon. "Our job is to get it right, and if that takes a long time, well, that's what we'll do."

Meanwhile, BentProp has a new weapon in its arsenal as it works to explore Police Hill, foot by foot. Evan Walsh, a development engineer from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, brought along several 3D-Robotics octocopters, which he was applying to various tasks, both off boats in the search for planes lost at sea, and here on Police Hill.

BentProp Project team leader Pat Scannon smiles as he watches a drone fly over the Police Hill jungle canopy, capturing imagery that can be used to find metal and create new topographic maps of the area. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

A drone laden with both GoPro and infrared cameras flew above the jungle. The idea? To create a detailed topographic map, using custom Autodesk software, that will help the BentProp team navigate the treacherous area and pick up heat signatures from metal that potentially could be in burial sites.

Watching Walsh send the drone out to "mow the lawn," or fly atop the jungle canopy, Scannon sported a wide smile. "This is so cool," he said. "I didn't even have the smarts to think this was possible."