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Ghosts Of World War II Under The Islands Of Papua New Guinea


Thousands of American service members were based on the Pacific island of New Guinea during World War II. In 1942, Japan invaded the town of Rabaul in what's now Papua New Guinea and built a military base there. The battles for control of that base and the surrounding area were fierce, and wreckage from the war is still being discovered, wreckage that may bring answers to the descendants of those missing in action. This weekend's Long Listen comes from NPR fellow Durrie Bouscaren.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Lloyd Woo eases a boat through the clear, blue waters of the Bismarck Sea and to the edge of a coral reef. He cuts off the engine. A specific cluster of coconut palms wave back from the shore, so he knows this is the spot.

LLYOD WOO: Slope is going down. You get to about 25, 26 meters. You'll meet the plane.

BOUSCAREN: The plane is a Japanese biplane moored here during World War II. He says it was hit during a bombing by Allied forces and sank where it was anchored. Today, Woo brings groups of scuba divers here to see it in person. After an equipment check and safety reminders, they're off.


BOUSCAREN: Woo's family has lived in Rabaul for generations. Countless civilians died during the war. But Woo's relatives survived daytime bombings by hiding in a network of underground tunnels.

WOO: And what I remember my father saying - they always come out at nighttime. Head up to the gardens. Get - grab food or whatever and then back before daylight again.

BOUSCAREN: During the war, local members of the Tolai tribe were forced into hard labor, building tunnels and airplane runways. The Chinese immigrant community in Rabaul was targeted by Japanese invaders and killed. Woo's grandmother was both Chinese and Tolai. So her parents tattooed her face with traditional markings, so she could hide with the Tolai.

WOO: So the Japanese would think that they were actually locals. She had tattoos on her forehead like all locals did. She was fair-skinned like myself.

BOUSCAREN: This history is traumatic. And the water - Woo faces it all the time. Sometimes he dives with the teams who discover the wrecks for the first time.

WOO: And one which we found four years ago, five years ago - you know how they have the civil plates on the side of engines and all that? - chipped that one out, pulled it up back to the ship that I was working on. We emailed the Japanese government. They came back and said they were looking for that plane.

BOUSCAREN: Military researchers estimate that hundreds of thousands of Japanese service members died during the entire New Guinea campaign. Australia and the U.S. lost several thousand soldiers each. For many of the war dead, their remains were never found. The U.S. has 73,000 service members still missing in action from World War II, the majority of them in the Pacific. A government agency with a nearly $150 million budget is still actively trying to find, identify and match their remains through their own research and grants to universities. Sometimes, they're following up on tips from private researchers like Justin Taylan.

Taylan is based in Florida but visits the nation now known as Papua New Guinea frequently. He tracks his finds on a website, pacificwrecks.com. Identifying a plane, he says, means you can match it to someone who's been missing in action for 75 years, give their family some form of closure.

JUSTIN TAYLAN: There was no GPS. There were no black boxes. So the plane disappeared completely. Maybe it was sometimes seen over the target or seen returning and never showed up at the base.

BOUSCAREN: Sitting next to him, looking out the window, is his friend Jon O'Neill.

JON O'NEILL: I can't get my head around the fact people actually did this to each other, you know?

BOUSCAREN: O'Neill is a writer who came across Taylan's website about 10 years ago and convinced him to bring him along. O'Neill's father was an American pilot who served in New Guinea and survived the war. But he died of leukemia when O'Neill was 6 years old.

O'NEILL: This was the big gap in my father's life that I wasn't able to fill in. That's why I had to come. You know, I have to see what the sky looks like, what the ground looks like, what the people look like.


BOUSCAREN: The car stops on a massive plantation of tall coconut trees grown for their husks. Rows of cocoa trees grow lower to the ground in the shade. During World War II, this would have been cleared out, used as a Japanese airstrip.


BOUSCAREN: Taylan greets the families who live here, hands out candy to the kids. In the local language, he asks permission to see some of the wreckage that's been on the property for a while. The kids lead the way to what first looks like a pile of scrap metal. And with machetes, they start to hack away at the undergrowth.


BOUSCAREN: Taylan serves as a guide.

TAYLAN: This is all wreckage that was collected from here at Tobira (ph). These are mostly Japanese aircraft. But you see what's amazing - see this original green paint here? So that's the original camouflage paint. They've obviously been out for - in the sun and exposure for 75 years. But if you look closely, you can still see original markings, piece of the rising sun.

BOUSCAREN: This Japanese airplane, he says, is a Nakajima Ki-43. It was called an Oscar by allied forces, a name that O'Neill recognizes from his father's mission reports.

O'NEILL: My dad claimed an Oscar on their 24th mission. You know, you just never know. I mean, it's possible my old man shot that plane down.

BOUSCAREN: Taylan agrees.

O'NEILL: There is a high likelihood that some of these aircraft might have intercepted a mission your dad flew or that they might have been in the sky at the same time or even that he may have put some of these bullet holes in there.

BOUSCAREN: O'Neill takes a moment, thinks about it.

O'NEILL: I mean, to think that this is like - that people would actually get in these things and go up in the sky and shoot at each other. The people who were here, the Japanese who were here, including the villagers, too, were subjected to all kinds of bombs day after day after day after day for years and years. It's just overwhelming.

BOUSCAREN: This is real, he says, not like some black-and-white film from the 1940s. Getting up close, seeing it in person, you can start to understand the damage that war can bring. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "BLUE BOI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.