Cruising the Philippines Part 2: Lost B25 bomber wreck discovered
LOST SOULS OF SIBUYAN ISLAND
by James Baldwin
While sailing from island to island through the central Philippines, and heading nowhere in particular, I felt drawn to anchor one afternoon off the little town of San Fernando in a bay on the leeward coast of Sibuyan Island.
Sibuyan Island map
In an area filled with scattered islands, large and small, Sibuyan stands out prominently. Its rugged mountains tower over 6,000 feet above the sea on an island barely 12 miles across. Looking up at the lushly forested slopes and saw-toothed peaks disappearing under a stationary cap of clouds, I sensed that here was an island holding something mysterious. It beckoned to be explored. It amazed me that in this crowded world, this entire region remained, at least while I was there in the mid-1990s, an unspoiled cruising paradise where one seldom encountered a tourist or even another yacht. From what Ive heard it has not changed all that much in recent years.
Children of the forest on Sibuyan Island
Strolling through San Fernandos quiet main street, I poked my head through the open doorway of a wooden building with We Guard The Coast printed in bold letters on its front wall. This was obviously the local coast guard station, and since visiting yachts are such a rarity here, I thought they might be interested in my arrival. Inside, the officer on duty lay stretched out flat on his back on a table snoring blissfully, secure in the knowledge that the coast could look after itself for awhile. Seeing that the coast guard here had neither weapons nor a patrol boat, I took it as a positive sign of the islands inviolate peace and order.
On visiting the office of Mayor Rios, I learned that the sleepy town of San Fernando had recently awakened to a visit by four officers from the US Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. Their extraordinary mission here was to recover and identify the remains of the crew of an American B-25 bomber lost during World War II that was recently discovered high up in an almost inaccessible flank of Sibuyans Guiting-Guiting (Saw-tooth) mountain. Mayor Rios showed me a signed receipt from the US team for: one boot, assorted bones, four pistols, one elbow joint, one radio transmitter, and other items that he had collected from the site before they arrived. The plane and its crew had lain undisturbed and unknown for 47 years. Although the army team was thwarted from completing their search of the area by heavy monsoon rains, they did recover more bones and a couple of the dog tags that identified the planes crew. They promised to return next year to continue the search, but reportedly have not been back since.
Meanwhile, once news of the wreck had spread around the island, treasure hunters willing to tackle the dangerous mountain terrain had taken other items from the site. Despite pleas from the mayor, anything portable that was considered useful or valuable was taken. Bullet tips containing hardened steel were reshaped to equip the islands fighting cocks with spurs. Aircraft aluminum has found its way into the construction of the local fishing boats.
According to the mayor, the airplane wreck was found by Mr. Braulio Rollon who was searching the unexplored mountaintop forests for rattan vines that he sells to furniture makers. As he slashed through the bush with his machete he unexpectedly uncovered a three-bladed aircraft propeller. Nearby he found an engine, a broken wing and a twisted fuselage next to which lay two skeletons, both with identifying dog tags. Strewn among the wreckage were machine guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, unexploded bombs and some personal effects that had remarkably survived nearly a half-century among the perpetual wind and rain and riotous jungle growth of the mountain peak.
The Blonde Bomber, a B25 similar to one found in Sibuyan
When I expressed an interest in seeing the wreck, the mayor said it was too difficult a journey for him to make again, but that I might find a guide at the Catholic mission in Taclobo village. There I met Brother Frederico, an energetic Filipino missionary who built and runs an orphanage in an attractive garden setting next to a pond fed by a gentle waterfall. Brother Frederico, I had been told, had made friends, as well as a few enemies, from his outspoken efforts to protect Sibuyans magnificent remaining forests from illegal logging and helping the few nomadic mountain people who still live there. Frederico told me he had also been awaiting a good opportunity to visit the site of the bomber wreck. Without hesitation he packed his bag and we set off on foot together up the mountain in search of our guide.
We climbed a narrow footpath for a long way until we came to the three bamboo huts that comprised the village of Layag. There we chanced to meet Braulio Rollon himself, who after looking over us and our equipment with a critical eye and warning us that it would require three days of hard walking and climbing, agreed to guide us to the wreck site.
From Layag, the trail descended steeply to the clear and cold waters of the Catingas River which we followed upstream for a mile or so. In places, the vertical canyon walls pressed in closely on either side and we clung cautiously to the trail as it wrapped around the narrow ledges. Below us the roaring river boiled in mad confusion. In shallow sections where the river widens, a few families have established precarious homes and vegetable gardens on the sandy banks. When typhoon rains come, the river rises dramatically and sweeps all before it the houses, gardens and car-sized boulders go tumbling into the sea. Later, the hardy mountain folk return to build anew their grass and bamboo houses and gardens.
Carrying his hunting rifle in one hand, cooking pot in the other hand, and our heaviest pack on his back, the sure-footed Braulio led us away from the river up a steep path. Despite his cumbersome load, this 30-year-old expert woodsman moved swiftly and silently, stopping only to let us catch up. When the trail became impossibly steep he uncoiled a long rattan vine for us to pull ourselves up with.
When we discovered the next day that our food supplies would be insufficient for the three-day march, Braulio announced coolly that he would not mind going without his share of our food and water for 24 hours. We kept protesting that he had shamed us enough already until he agreed to share equally what we had. He was quite used to the hardships of living in the forest without any equipment other than his gun and knife and what nature provided. He knew this forest intuitively, having frequently come here to shoot or trap wild monkeys, sometimes even catching them bare handed. The farther we advanced up the mountain, the more respect I gained for this mans astonishing endurance and bush sense.
Several times Braulio stopped to check or set traps made of logs and vines ingeniously lashed together to trap the monkeys when they reached for the fruit bait. In a clearing on a mountain pass we found long bamboo poles with thorny branches attached to the ends. At night, hunters used these giant fly swats to knock bats out of the air as they swooped in low over the hills. Monkeys and bats taste very good with rice, Braulio assured us. I eventually became hungry enough to have happily devoured a bat or monkey, roasted or not. Fortunately for the wildlife, we were making far too much noise bashing through the undergrowth, for our guide to shoot anything.
Children along the Catingas River
Giude Braulio Rollon and Frederico
It was only after we were well up into the mountain hinterland that we left behind the constant background noise of chain saws, illegally cutting their way up the Catingas River Valley. Logging provides much needed jobs for the islands growing population, but the long term effects of such rapid deforestation are not in anyones interest. It was sad to think that within our lifetime this virgin forest could be reduced to eroded sun-baked clay and patches of kunai grass as has happened on so many of the Philippine Islands.
On our third day out, near the top of Mt. Guiting-Guiting, Braulio casually warned us not to trip over an unexploded bomb that was partially hidden in the brush directly in front of us. Next in our path was another live bomb some salvagers had trussed up in bamboo and vines to haul down the mountain. Perhaps it was too heavy or they had thought twice about bouncing a hundred-pound bomb down the rocky trail. A few cautious steps later we were in an eerie-looking scene of contorted aluminum wreckage, scattered machine guns and engine parts, all wrapped up in the rain-soaked vegetation. Under a piece of loose fuselage we found a leather bag that held a pistol, some old coins and some disintegrating leaflets that read MacArthur keeps his Pledge and MacArthur has Returned. During the war, thousands of these were dropped over cities in the path of advancing US forces.
This plane was later identified as a Mitchell B-25 bomber, serial #43-28134 from the U.S. Fifth Air Force, piloted by 22-year-old 1st Lt Wallace N. Chalifoux. It went missing in the predawn twilight on January 9, 1945 with six crewmen while en route from Leyte Island on a bombing run to support US landings on Luzons Lingayan Gulf. The official record of the crash states that another pilot in this 17-plane bomber group reported seeing Wallace's plane disappear into a menacing dark cloud bank a few hundred feet below his own elevation. Seconds later he saw two bright flashes appear on the peak of Mt. Guiting-Guiting. I can only guess why a search was not made here after the war ended.
It had been incredible bad luck that the plane hit just a few hundred feet below the top of the highest peak in the area. If the plane had exploded on impact, it is likely that everyone died instantly. However, with Brother Frederico interpreting, Braulio told me that when he first came across the wreck he found one of the skeletons laying against the fuselage with arms cradling the other, as if he was holding an injured friend. I was moved when Braulio explained how he knelt beside the entwined skeletons, lit a candle and said a prayer for their souls. None of the six Americans aboard were over 23 years old. The next day Braulio returned to San Fernando and led the mayor and a policeman up to investigate the find.
That evening we prepared to bivouac on a 45-degree slope under the minimal shelter of a twisted airplane wing. Braulio seemed to be searching for something in particular when Brother Frederico asked what he was looking for. Hearing his reply he turned to me shaking his head and said, Susmariyosup! (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!) Hes looking for the leg bone he used as a pillow the last time he slept here.
The author and B25 machine gun
Braulio finds an unexploded bomb
As we gained his trust, the reticent Braulio began to share with us some of the legends and beliefs of the mountain people. They believe the mountain maliciously draws climbers to the summit where they become lost in the cold mists, and eventually die of hunger. Indeed, because of its steepness, impenetrable bush and almost continuous rain, the mountain peak has only been stood upon a few times since the first successful ascent in 1982. In recent years, four climbers were killed when the ravine they camped in turned into a thundering waterfall on a stormy night. Even before the discovery of the bomber, the locals believed the mountain contained a kind of giant magnet that affects aircraft instruments causing them to crash. Several years ago a Philippines Air Force plane was wrecked on the mountain. Another B-25 bomber, the Lazy Daisy Mae, was once thought lost somewhere near the island, but its wreckage was recently discovered on nearby Mindoro Island.
Apart from wild boars, the only dangerous wildlife on the island is pythons, which are blamed for the occasional disappearance of children in the forest. When the mountain people here come down with a serious illness, it is frequently ascribed to kilkig poisoning by someone practicing witchcraft and the only antidote is to drink an infusion of a certain type of boiled root that grows in the highlands. While salvaging recyclable wreckage from the plane, many brass shell casings from the bombers machine gun bullets have been fashioned into rings which locals wear on their fingers to protect them against the witches and black fairies that inhabit the island.
The constant rain and cold wind and our growing hunger soon forced us to leave the wreck. In our haste to find something to eat we practically ran down the mountain, stopping only to sip rainwater and drowned insects that had collected in the cups of carnivorous plants. Twelve hours later we stumbled up to a hut beside the Catingas River where we met Senior Salvador Recto who, seeing our wretched condition, kindly invited us in for a meal. Sitting on the bamboo slat floor next to the cooking fire, we thankfully dug our hands into piles of cold rice and an unidentifiable stew from a blackened iron pot. Staring down at us from a rack on the wall was a row of monkey skulls. The stew tasted wonderful and I was too hungry to ask what had gone into it. When offered payment, Senior Recto just smiled and shook his head side to side. Too exhausted to move, and unable to continue back in the approaching darkness, we dropped into sleep where we sat.
Back at the mission the next morning, the children prepared a meal for us as we soaked sore muscles in the pool under the waterfall. Though I soon sailed on to other islands, I have ever since felt the pull of Sibuyans magnet. Memories of its wild nature and generous people will always be waiting to lure me back.
Parts of a leaflet (back and front) stating "MacArthur Has Returned"
and "MacArthur Keeps His Pledge" we found in the wreckage.
Links: Article and Eulogy by niece of Gunner Sgt. Paul Panniocco.
More on the history of the U.S. Fifth Air Force from aerothentic.