Spelunking For Japanese Bones on Kairiru Island
The soft basaltic rock of the island was riddled with caves and the small streams that ran through them. They were explored by all the boys at the school, as they weren’t very deep, and had long ago lost any treasures they might have held.
One night, during heavy rain, we felt a fairly good-sized earthquake shake the island. The coconut trees rattled nervously and the lights in the school classrooms shook so violently that some fell from the ceiling. Boys were jumping out the open windows of the classroom everywhere yelling, “Gurier, Gurier!”, the Pidgin word for Earthquake.
Kairiru lies right on the rim of the “Ring of Fire” encircling the Pacific, and the island itself is an extinct volcano that rose up about three or four million years ago. As such, it receives numerous small earthquakes each year, and some recent ones have created Tsunamis that caused horrific damage along the North coast of New Guinea, especially around Aitape.
No one was hurt that night, and the only other damage we could see in the dark, was a small land-slip just behind my house on the hill side above the airstrip/soccer field. We went to bed slightly more concerned than normal about earthquakes, and I kept my thatch window open, so that I might jump out the window if a strong earthquake hit during the night. My house was made in the traditional style, with no nails, and only bush Canda(rope) tying everything together. This meant that it had a lot of flexibility, but it also meant that under the right conditions, it could fall down completely! The main beams over my head were 12 meters long, constructed of solid Teak, and I really didn’t want them to land on me.
The next day, a group of boys came up to see Brother Patrick, who was head-master of the school. They had been exploring up the stream that ran past the school after work that day, and found a newly-exposed cave on the mountainside. It was almost half way up the mountain, and in a small valley that wound down from the peak of Mount Malangis, in the center of Kairiru. They were very excited about their discovery, as they had been too afraid to go far into the cave, spotting human bones in the opening.
New Guineans are quite strong believers in the Masalai, or bad spirits, that infest certain places, and these boys were not about to enter a cave containing bones without some of the magic of the white men with them. As it was nearing dusk already, Brother Pat told them to select a group of ten senior boys, and that they should be ready to leave at sunrise, which was always around 7:00 a.m.
The next day was a school day, but I knew my classes were all with the grade ten boys next day, so I asked Brother Patrick if I might accompany them on their trek up the mountain to the cave. I don’t know if it was my bubbling, youthful excitement about going along, or the fact that I had a good 35mm camera, but he readily agreed.
Next morning, I was awake even before the morning shower came crashing down Malangis’ slopes on the school, as it did almost every morning at dawn. By the time the morning wake-up bell rang hollowly around the mist covered dormitories, I was already packed and ready to go. After a quick breakfast of toast and bananas, I was soon trudging along behind a line of young men, heading up the mountain path behind St. Xavier’s.
At first, the path led wound gently along the spring-fed stream that ran along past the school, and down to the ocean. Reaching the waterfall at Sarai, some two or three hundred meters above the school, we stopped for a breather while I took some pictures.
After a few minutes, the boys were eager to press on, so we jumped to our feet, and headed up the eastern face of the valley that climbed to the very peak of Kairiru. Brother Patrick was well into his fifties, but he kept up with the boys admirably, while I, on the other hand, found myself barely able to deal with the heat and exertion of climbing the slippery mountain trail. My Grandmother would have called it,” a poor goat-path”, and she wouldn’t have been far wrong. At that point in my life on Kairiru, I hadn’t yet been able to adjust to the heat and humidity, and sweat was pouring out of me!
Struggling upward, we finally made it to another ridge that overlooked the school, airstrip, and Chem village to the west. The clear blue water allowed us to see the reefs better than ever possible from down below. At that point, we turned to the east and wound our way around the ridge until we came to a small plateau, where the bush and soil had fallen away, exposing the cave-mouth.
Brother Pat was the first to enter the cave, as he was eldest man, as well as headmaster. He had turned on his “torch”, as the Aussies say, and climbing back a few meters in the cave, he immediately let out an exclamation of excitement!
“Bloody Hell, it’s a Nip ammunition dump”
Needless to say, it didn’t take us long to join him in the exploration of the cave and all its contents. There was a large pile of rock rubble and tree roots filling the entrance, and as we made our way over it, it soon became clear that both the boys and Brother Pat had a right to be surprised and excited. A small level area just behind the rubble, held the obvious remains of a Japanese soldier, the soles of his boots and his helmet clearly visible. I couldn’t help but notice that one of his front teeth had been capped with gold.
Cautioning us not to disturb the contents, Brother Pat pushed on into the cave, with a line of boys, and I following him. A few meters inside, it turned to the left, and soon all light from outside was obstructed, so we were obliged to turn on our torches as well. As we all brought our lights to bear on the tunnel, it was my turn to burst out, “There’s a Samurai sword!”
Lying on the mud and clutter on the floor of the cave, was the encrusted blade of a sword, with the scabbard a few meters away. I impulsively wanted to pick it up, but my attention was drawn away by another shout from one of the boys who had peered further into the tunnel. He had spotted three, 200 liter fuel drums, stacked up against one wall, and two large metal cooking pots, with a pile of other unrecognizable goods beside them. Several wooden boxes, that looked like they held ammunition lay a little further back.
The cave, or tunnel, for the Japanese had only deepened the original cave, came to an end only a few meters further, and as we could spot nothing else of human design, returned our attention to the body and other articles back closer to the entrance. A layer of slimy mud covered everything, but Brother Pat wanted me to photograph everything as it was, so I set out snapping pictures of everything I could. When he was satisfied that we had documented everything sufficiently, Br. Pat told the boys to move the drums and cooking pots out further toward the entrance, while he more closely examined the body of the soldier.
Unable to contain myself any longer, I asked Br. Pat if I might retrieve the sword and have a look at it. “Bloody right mate”, was his classic response, and I scrambled back into the tunnel to get it.
At first, I supposed that it would be rusted and disintegrated beyond value, but I was shocked to find it almost intact, despite its long exposure to the tropical elements. Pouring some of the water from my canteen over the handle and blade, I was rewarded by the appearance of a shine on part of the blade, and with the use of my singlet, I wiped it down carefully.
I had never actually seen a Samurai sword before, but my Anthropology Professor at the University of Regina, Dr. James Watral, had been an avid collector, and spoken about their incredible steel making technology many times. Holding one in my hand, under these circumstances, made me think of him immediately, and I knew he would have given his little finger to have been there.
The blade had only a tinge of encrusted rust along the one side where it had lain in the mud, but the other side, was virtually unmarked. The handle, however, had not fared so well in the 50 years since its burial. The haft had been originally wrapped in what appeared to be leather, covered in shark skin, and this was rotted to a state where any handling, would break it off. The silver wire wrapping the handle still stood out brightly against the crumbling grip, and I stood wondering about its owner for a few moments.
Knowing that these swords were passed down from father to son for generations, I found myself caught up in a swirl of thoughts about its history. The evidence seemed to indicate that its owner lay nearby, and I tried to imagine his final moments. I hoped that it had been quick and merciful, and not as Brother Pat had hypothesized on the trek up the mountain. A bomb crater further up the mountain, led him to believe that this may have caused the collapse of the tunnel, sealing it until now. Any men sheltering in it, would have been trapped.
Gingerly holding it up to the light, I tested its edge on a small twig growing at the mouth of the tunnel. It was still so sharp, that it cut effortlessly, and left me pondering how sharp it must have been when it was last handled. My reverie was interrupted by another round of exclamations from the rest of the group.
By this time they had manhandled the three drums out into the light in front of the rubble at the cave mouth. Using the tip of a bush knife to pry up the rim of the lid, Br. Pat had succeeded in opening one of them. There, in a crumbling heap old cloth, were the remains of two men, their skulls distinctly bulging above the other bones.
Our fascination had become such that the boys were no longer fearful of the bodies, but rather crowded around the drums, excitedly urging Br. Pat to open them all. This he proceeded to do, and soon it became clear that all three were of like contents. Each one contained the bones of 2 men, their dog-tags intact, minus their boots, which would have been too valuable to discard.
In one drum, the bones were encased in a thick layer of tar residue that must have been left over bunker fuel that had still been in the barrel when it was put to use. These bones, we weren’t able to extract from the drum, but Br. Pat ordered that the others be carefully removed, wrapped in leaves, and returned to the school. This they set about to do, while he and I examined the pile of other materials still in the cave.
In one corner were clearly the remains of a radio, and some empty tin cans, along with some rotted papers and several boots, with only the rubber soles left. The canvas or leather upper part had long-since disintegrated in the jungle humidity and heat. What caught my attention were the wooden crates still sitting at the rear. They were completely intact, and still bore several rows of characters stamped on their sides. I had no idea what they might contain, but I pulled out my pocket knife, and began prying the top off one of them, trying not to damage it more than necessary.
As the first board came loose, I lifted it careful and peered inside. At first all I could see were rows of long brown cylinders stacked together, but after removing two or three more of the boards, I could plainly make out that they were all large caliber shells, still well preserved by their original coating of grease. I now set about opening the other two cases, and was surprised to find they were all different.
One case held thousands of small caliber bullets, with many of their casing still shining brassy new. The other contained what appeared to be 50 caliber machine-gun bullets, although, for some reason, many of them were badly corroded. This was probably due a small rivulet of water that had trickled down through the cave over the years. It had dribbled for decades over the box, and it was a tribute to their design that they existed at all. They weighed some 50 kg each, and Br. Pat decided that, since they were so potentially dangerous, he would come back tomorrow and retrieve them separately.
Meanwhile, three or four other boys had carried the two cooking pots out of the cave, and were busy scraping and cleaning them out. They appeared to be made of white metal, which although very brittle, resists rusting admirably, and they were still quite usable!
Before we began our journey back down the mountain, Br. Pat asked the boys for a moment of silence, when he offered a little prayer for the men whose bodies we had found. Being an Australian, Br. Pat’s own father had fought the Japanese in New Guinea, but never-the-less, he asked us all to pray for God’s forgiveness for these poor men, who fell so far from home and their loved ones.
I took a few more pictures of the little service and around the cave mouth, and then we prepared for the trip back. It was by now well into the afternoon, and the monsoon rains were beginning to threaten, so we hurriedly started down the trail. Our journey was much encumbered by the weight of the two large cooking pots, so we decided to leave them along the path, keeping only the bones we had retrieved and the sword, as well as all the papers we could find.
Despite our haste, the rain caught us halfway down the hill, and we were forced to slide and skid or way down the final stretch before the school. We were met by a large group of boys from every grade in the school, and of course, Brother William Borell, who examined everything with an experienced eye. He was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge, and had spent many years all over the South Pacific, teaching in Marist Brother boarding schools. He had also been young monk in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded during World War II, and had spent nearly three years in a Japanese P.O.W. camp.
He immediately set about preserving everything as best he could, with the materials we had at hand. Some, he placed in a drying box with silica gel and a light bulb that warmed them during the evening hours when we had electrical power from our diesel generator. The bones and paper, he submerged in a mixture of alcohol and Formaldehyde, of his own concoction. This completed, he turned his attention to the sword and scabbard, which we had been set aside.
Further careful cleaning of the blade revealed the forge marks he was searching for, and after a half hour of humming and self-conversation, Br. William was ready to make a pronouncement.
“I’m sure this sword belonged to a Lieutenant or better”, he began. “The forge marks indicate that it was made sometime before 1900, and this type of hilt wrapping is typical of swords made during the period before the first World War, when Japan still practiced the ancient methods, but were able to call upon modern technology to provide top quality steel.”
Turning once again to his artifacts, he continued, “The silk cord tied to the scabbard has a small tag engraved with two Japanese characters that I can’t understand, as my Japanese is too poor, but I think it is a family name.”
Br. Pat was anxious to know if Br. William was able to tell us anything about the writing on the big bundle of soggy papers we had brought him. He had gently separated each page, and testing the effects of his mixture, rinsed and soaked each one in a tray. Several in particular, looked like official documents, and he examined them more closely to see if he might interpret their contents.
“This one definitely has the insignia of the Japanese High Command, but I am not sure, what all it says”, he explained, adding that he was fairly certain that the bottom of the document held the date, which was 1945.
Br. Pat had also removed and collected the 7 dog-tags belonging to each soldier, and these he reverently showed to Br. William. Spreading them out on the table in the Science Lab, he chose the one he had taken from the lone soldier, who had not been in one of the barrels. It had a number of characters stamped into the metal tag, and Brother William examined them with a small eye lens, after wiping them vigorously for a few moments.
“See here, Br. Pat, this character is the same as on the one on the scabbard, and it also appears to be a family name”, he announced, after rechecking the scabbard.
“With this information, and the help of Japanese war records, we should be able to identify all these men”, explained Br. William, “Many Japanese families are still grieving the loss of their sons, due to the fact that they were never found. This discovery could be very important to the restoration of their family honor, and I believe we should contact the Japanese embassy as soon as possible with this information.”
Br. Pat readily agreed to this idea, but he suggested that we write the Japanese-Papua New Guinea Friendship Society, to ask their advice on the matter. Br. William had just returned to Kairiru Island after several years of teaching in Sarawak, Indonesia, and he had not heard of the organization, but he thought it was a good idea as well.
With that, the discussion was over, and I went back up to my house, for a welcome shower and a rest after the day’s exertions. Looking out the window of my house overlooking the airstrip, I thought about the placid scene below me, and how it must have been 50 years earlier, with American bombs dropping all over. It was hard to imagine how the poor men stationed there must have suffered during the bombing.
Once, during a trip to Wewak, I had been forced to participate in a total evacuation of the town, so that unexploded ordinance from World War II could be detonated. A 250 kg bomb had been found in the swampy area just west of Wewak. I, and a group of others, had chosen to observe the spectacle from Wewak hill, rising some 500 meters above the town. At the appointed time, the bomb was set off by the disposal team, and the concussion was almost beyond belief!
We were a good Kilometer away from the bomb, which had been left as it lay in the swamp, but the pressure wave hit me with such force as to nearly knock me to the ground, I was so surprised. It was as if a giant had reached out to punch me in the chest, and my ears rang with the force.
The memory of that occasion, and the knowledge that hundreds of such bombs had fallen on Kairiru, left me wondering what kind of men could bear such punishment, and yet still fight on. My father had served in W.W.II, and been a corporal in The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, and he had recounted a number of stories about that time to me. His struggle had been with the cold, and the fierce determination of the Nazis, who made every town a death trap, but I didn’t think it could have been any harder than what the Japanese soldiers on Kairiru had to contend with. Bomb-craters pock-marked the jungle everywhere around the school, although any that existed on the airstrip has long-since been filled in.
Br. Pat had told me that most of the Japanese soldiers who were sent to New Guinea died of Malaria, the bombing, or starved to death. The others were dealt with very harshly by the locals, or the Americans, who imprisoned many on Muschu in the months after the war.
As I gazed down over the school and the peaceful scene, coconut palms blowing in the breeze, I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of battles and bones and bugs. Little did I know that at the same time, Br. Pat was writing a letter that would have profound implications for us at school, as well as all of Papua New Guinea.