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RU Students Write From Guadalcanal
About Their Search for WWII Marine Remains
From July 6 - July 23, a team of Radford University faculty and students attempted to locate the remains of members of the U.S. Marine Goettge Patrol killed during the August 1942 Battle for Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. RU anthropologists Cliff and Donna Boyd, physicist Rhett Herman and RU students used archaeological techniques and geophysical equipment to survey the ground where the patrol was believed to be buried in mass graves. The trip was a part of RU's Forensic Science Institute field school in archaeology and geophysical survey at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Read about what the students found and experienced in Guadalcanal through their online journal below. (NOTE: To view larger images of the photos, click on the image.)
To prepare for the trip, the group surveyed the grounds and cemeteries of Virginia Tech’s RJ Reynolds Homestead in Critz, Va. Watch and listen to the students describe their experiences while training on the technology and techniques they are using in the Solomon Islands.
For more information about the field school, see the RU News Release.
Journal Entry 10
We are now at the end of our experience on Guadalcanal. During the past two weeks, we have conducted an intensive remote sensing survey of 12,000 square meters along the north coast using primarily Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and several antennae to see at different depths below the surface. We have identified multiple anomalies and have excavated almost 20 square meters to investigate these anomalies.
Our immediate goals have been to better understand the subsurface geology and stratigraphy of this area and to train our students in the efficient use of the GPR and GPS mapping systems as well as more traditional archaeological methods of establishing grids, excavating test units, and drawing maps. Our ultimate goal was to search for and possibly find the remains of the famed Goettge Patrol lost on April 12, 1942.
We have had great success with respect to our immediate goals--no one has ever conducted detailed scientific excavations in this area and documented the geology in the fashion that we have. So, we know an unprecedented amount about the conditions underground in this region and realize their complexity. The students have also had an intensive immersion in archaeological and geophysical remote sensing techniques and, most importantly, into a culture very different from their own.
I have been very proud of how my students have interacted with the native Guadalcanese. We have made many friends among the people here and they have been very generous to us with their kindness and overall positive support.; We have all gained a strong appreciation for the culture here and have learned that, just as is the case everywhere, there are good people and not so good people in this culture. The difficulties in logistics, language, and simply dealing with our own culture shock have been challenging at times, but I think we have learned how to work through the system fairly well. The cross-cultural experience alone makes this class very special.
While we did not achieve our ultimate goal of finding the Goettge Patrol, we can feel confident that we applied the best technology and expertise available to address this goal and we are several steps closer to understanding the ultimate fate of these MIA Marines. We ended our mission with a brief memorial service (see photo at right) near the probable site of the Patrol's landing -- the first one ever held for the Goettge Marines -- and have arranged for a memorial tree to be planted at the Solomon Island National Memorial Gardens in the Goettge Patrol's name.
Journal Entry 9
Last week, we visited a primary school just outside of town. The school was created by the community because the schools in town were too far away. Over time, the Australians added on to the existing buildings allowing the school to take in more children. Although the school has all of the basic necessities, it lacks many of the amenities that we have become accustomed to by living in the States; plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning. Nevertheless, the teachers and the students seem happy.
I spoke to one of the teachers of the younger children. She told me that she is not originally from the community but she came to the area to teach. The community gave her housing by the headmaster’s home to make her commute to the school quick and easy.
I walked into a few of the classrooms and asked some of the children to have a look at their workbooks. I discovered that lessons are taught primarily in English. They are instructed in many of the same subject areas that I remember from primary including math, grammar, history, arts and crafts, music, and physical education.
Given that this school has little money and hardly any support from either the local or the national government, the children here are receiving a good basic education. They will leave primary with the essentials; the ability to read and write and to do arithmetic. They will also have some knowledge of the world outside of their own village as well as the opportunities that an education can bring.
We are going to try to set up a pen-pal system between the school and a local elementary school in Radford. Hopefully we can keep up with the progress of the school, its teachers and their pupils.
Journal Entry 8
We're using the OhmMapper and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) in an attempt to scan the area before we do an archeological dig. I've used this equipment before in Barrow, Alaska, to find a relationship between the surface of the ice/water boundary and it's age. But down here, we're using it to find a specific location of interest to dig. Using a compass and a giant tape measure, we make a grid using flags and some simple trigonometry. Then, we run the equipment over the grids. Later that night, after we've processed the data, if we find any 'features of interest' we simply say 'Hey, let’s look at four meters over, 8 meters across, 1 1/2 meters down.
The digging is interesting to me because I've never had anything to do with archeology before. Unfortunately, most of the hits that the GPR turned up have been coral - extremely large chunks of coral that need to be pick-axed through. We have found a few things of interest, such as bullets, really old bottles, twisted metal frames and all sorts of odds and ends. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack, but now we've removed about half of the hay.
I also spent a little bit of time learning 'Pigeon' today. It's interesting. To say 'My name is Trevor' is 'Namea belonga me Trevor', and 'Where is the bathroom' is 'wherenow bathroom'. The way you put an accent on certain syllables though will really throw you off. I didn't realize it was a form of broken reestablished English until someone explained it to me.
In the photos above, left to right:
Journal Entry 7
There are ghosts everywhere here. Not literal ghosts, I’m not seeing things … but everywhere you look, there are signs and evidence of the past human events that have occurred here. Sometimes it’s subtle things, being told that the area we were digging was an unloading area for supply ships and being able to see the men, trucks, and equipment being brought off of huge ships in your mind. Other times, it’s obvious things, like when we see foxholes, dug long ago by US and Japanese soldiers.
I can’t help but think that someone who was maybe a little younger than I am now once crouched in that foxhole. Maybe he was incredibly bored or maybe he was scared. Maybe he was worried about his buddy who had been hit by shrapnel and had been taken behind the front line by medics. He may have fought for his life there; maybe he lost that fight.
(In the photo above: Marines rest in a field on Guadalcanal in 1942. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy archives.)
These experiences are everywhere here. If you have a mind for history, it’s hard to ignore. Perhaps that’s why our guides keep coming back year after year despite having homes and lives elsewhere. Maybe that’s why men who fought here wish to come back or to have their ashes spread here after they die. The experiences they’ve had here have stayed with them for over half a century.
Journal Entry 6
Since July 14, we have engaged in testing several areas identified by remote sensing (mostly ground penetrating radar) as having significant anomalies (or unusual signals). These are all located in an area where the Goettge patrol was supposed to be found. These anomalies have been identified as cultural fill or natural features, and suggest some major alterations to the original ground surface since 1942.
We are currently pursuing these clues to define the original soil layers, and to survey all possible areas for the location of these perished Marines. We have relied on local informants, as well as local historians, to better interpret the locations for field investigations.
This project exemplifies the learning process that is ongoing and involving not only archaeological survey and excavation but also oral history and ethnographic survey to follow leads to the location of these missing servicemen.
Journal Entry 5
This morning we did two big things. The first was a ceremony honoring a WWII veteran from Minnesota whose family (from Blacksburg) asked me just before the trip to take his ashes to Guadalcanal. They heard about the trip through the local news and called me out of the blue on the Friday, two days before we left on Sunday. He had died 2 years ago and his dying wish, given to his family 6 weeks before he died, was to have his ashes scattered in Guadalcanal (or the Solomon Islands in general) because so many of his friends never came back from there.
He was in the Army Air Corps and about 2 dozen out of his 49 total missions (gunner, navigator, and flight mechanic) flew over Guadalcanal. It was to be a quiet thing but a small group of the Australian army stationed here came to present an honor guard for a fellow veteran, the US Consular Agent came to pay respects, and a couple of local police came to pay respects and play taps on the bugle. It was truly impressive the honor they bestowed on the ashes of this one soldier who they never knew, but with whom they felt a powerful connection.
The other thing was that we visited a native village a couple of miles from downtown Honiara. It’s accessible by a rutted dirt road that’s pretty much impassable in the rain. It’s a long slog to town but the villagers do it daily, often barefoot.
We went there as a goodwill gesture to make contact with the villagers and see an elementary school. Not a high school, since the villagers didn’t make it that far in school. We all packed the school supplies that were donated and we took all of that up with us to the village. We got there and talked with the teachers, saw a classroom and talked a bit with the kids. They were ages 5-12 or thereabouts. They sang to us, Merritt and Emily Boyd (Cliff and Donna Boyd’s children) played a violin for the kids and we all had a good time.
When it came time to hand out the school supplies, I asked one of the teachers how to do it. She told us to give it to a man in the village who was kind of a “head man.” Then what he would do is make sure the supplies went to the teachers so they could then distribute them to the kids as needed. This way no child would be left out and no one would feel bad.
The picture I sent (see photo at right) is one I took while we were giving the supplies to this man named Peter. Each of us got a handful out of the big bag of supplies and put them into a stack in front of Peter. Everyone was very excited, especially the kids and their teachers who sorely needed the materials. I happened to get this picture as Josh was giving his pile to Peter. You can see the children and a few of the teachers to the left. I think this picture captures all that is good about this trip, whether we find anything or not. Students helping students, the same thing the world over.
The man whose back is to the camera (cap, striped shirt) is John Innes, a hilarious Aussie who is obsessed with the Guadalcanal invasion, an encyclopedic source of information on the subject, a local businessman who has a Marine wallet and belt buckle, and a wizard at making things happen to give this trip its best chance to succeed.
Journal Entry 4
As an anthropologist, I understood even before I came to the Solomons the complexities of living in the "third world." I came into this country with an expectation of poverty, unemployment, and an overall lack of access to basic resources like sanitation, clean water, food, and education. I also have been trained, as an anthropologist, to have a deep respect for foreign, especially indigenous, cultures.
What I have been struck by are the living manifestations of these problems -- the large numbers of island people who appear to be "hanging out" on the streets and around buildings (I now know this is due to the 83% unemployment rate), the ubiquitous trash on every inhabitable part of the island in conjunction with the numerous fires burning here and there at any time under the hot, tropical sun (one of two ways to dispose of the islanders' trash; the other is to dispose of it in or near the ocean and beaches), the bowed femora from an old man who suffered from rickets earlier in his life, and the distended stomachs of children gathered around our archaeological test pits suffering from kwashiorkor (a form of protein malnutrition). My initial gut response was to turn my eyes away from these sights, but after the initial culture shock has worn away, I have begun to ask myself "what could anyone do to survive in such an environment?" Just as our RU team quickly learned the basic keys to survival the first day (e.g., lots of bottled water, keeping a slower, more careful pace in the hot sun), the Islanders too have undergone their own process of adaptation over hundreds of years here. And I now know that the problems they face (and the solutions to them) are far more complex than I had ever imagined or studied.
Journal Entry 3
It's really hard to describe a trip like this. Every day we get up early, and get work done, but each day is vastly and wildly different. The first day we arrived, we were crushed by jet lag. Flying 21 hours is quite an experience. If there is actually a mathematical limit to how far a body is supposed to travel, I've pushed it this month. As soon as we touched down, we were greeted by sheets of rain, with wind so fast the water was flying sideways. Along the way, we met the people we would be working with, mostly from different backgrounds and here for different reasons.
John Innes, from the organization Greatest Generation MIA Recoveries and one of the people we're working with, had maps of current satellite images and old war knowledge and maps. He works and lives down here nine months out of the year, and in his free time gives amazing tours of the battles and history of everywhere and everything of Guadalcanal. John has managed to narrow down where the Goettge marines could be to only a few sections.
The first section we've been working on is directly behind a church, between the building and the water. Looking out towards the water, several gutted bodies of cars lay twisted on the rocky shore. Part of what makes the day to day experience so different is that several of the sections are behind churches. So we can't work on Sundays, and we need to seek permission to dig before we can really start test pits. Some days we lay out grids while the GPR and OhmMapper run simultaneously. And we work late nights struggling to interpret data. Other days, after a quick run of the GPR, we simply can't do much else for the day.
These days off though are just as important as the days we work. The first couple of days we only had a few afternoons off. We got to walk through town to stores, talk to locals, and just generally relax and have a good time. This is why I say this trip is hard to describe. After having a great time in town, I walked out to the beach by the hotel and spent an entire afternoon by myself filling bags with trash from the beach beside our hotel.
We put down more lines, processed more data, and the usual the rest of the morning. We had the entire afternoon off, so I had the great idea of finding snorkeling gear. We are on what is called 'The Iron Bottom Sound'. This is one of the best places to snorkel and dive because of all the shipwrecks around. I spent a good deal of the money that I allotted myself for the next few days, but the gear is actually pretty nice.
The next morning, John took us on an amazing tour of Guadalcanal. I must have taken 50 pictures, and a book full of notes. Maybe one of these days when I get better (and free) internet, I'll post some of the pictures. We went all around Guadalcanal, hearing war stories and stopping at memorials. He showed us where the actual front line was, where people dug in and where some had died. I feel like I could have listened to that man for days and still not know everything that happened here.
There's so much more I haven't written, not only just because I don't have time, but because every single minute a new experience is unfolding before us. Whether we're finally digging, working equipment, playing with local kids, exploring jungles, or just learning about the history and background of these islands and its culture, it just keeps becoming more and more abundantly clear that given a lifetime here we couldn't experience everything.
Journal Entry 2
It is only the third day that we have been here. I have already experienced more than I could ever imagine. The plane ride here was long, but somewhat enjoyable. It was amazing flying over the South Pacific and seeing the blue water and all the islands, but it was definitely a good feeling when we finally landed. As soon as we walked out of the airport it was pouring down rain and we had to load all of our equipment up in this tiny truck and we all squeezed in a van. The hotel wasn't far from the airport and as we drove, we all got our first impressions of the capital city, Honaira. Since it was raining, all the locals were crowded under overhangs and wherever they could find shelter. It was heartbreaking seeing the conditions that most of these people live in. It made me think about all the possessions that I brought in my suitcase and how these people probably don't have access to half of them.
The next day (after we partially recovered from our debilitating jet lag) we went out to the first site to start using the equipment. Luckily, the area was pretty open and right on the water which gave us a nice breeze. We laid out a grid and took some preliminary data with the Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and the Ohmmapper to see how well the equipment would work with various intervening variables (i.e., the soil, surroundings). Apparently there had been an article in the local Solomon Islands newspaper about our arrival, so some of the locals already knew we were coming. At times, there are large groups of people standing on the perimeter watching us while we work. On occasion, some locals will even come up to us and ask what we are doing. All of them have seemed very interested in our cause.
We met an incredible elderly man named Johnah who was a young boy when the Japanese and then the Americans arrived. He told us how he remembers many villagers living on the beach and when the planes started flying overhead they ran into the jungle to seek shelter. His own family was one of the many who experienced the struggle to stay out of the war that was not their own.
Tomorrow we are going on a WW2 history tour and it should give us a better idea of the island culture and how the history has affected them. We have gotten a lot done, but we still have a lot more to do and hopefully we will do just as well in the coming weeks as we have the past few days.
Journal Entry 1
So, this was the first time I have ever flown. I was really nervous and a little scared to fly. I guess if you had never flown before you would feel the same. On the way to the Charlotte airport we made a Bojangles stop because that's Dr. Herman's favorite place to eat and I was the only student that had ever eaten there before. The four hour flight to LAX was exciting at first, but it got old quick. Once we finally reached LAX we had a few hours lay over and then boarded our 747. The eleven hour flight to Fiji was not too bad. I slept most of the way and there was less turbulence. We arrived in Fiji around 5 a.m. Then, we continued on to Guadalcanal after a few hour layover. We also made a stop in Vanuatu. It was a beautiful place and very rural. The airport was actually named after a WWII fighter pilot that won the Medal of Honor. Once we finally made it to Guadalcanal the rain was pouring down.
My first impressions of Guadalcanal were not good. The customs lady I spoke to was not friendly at all, but that wasn't too bad. The motel is a beautiful place. During the past few days, we have been working very hard to collect data. We have been doing well especially working in the hot humid weather of Guadalcanal. I have really enjoyed working with the all the RU individuals and the other people that we are working with. Some of the people we are working with have spent decades learning about the battle of Guadalcanal and in the past few decades working on finding the lost U.S. soldiers.
The people here are so poor; I feel bad because I have so much more than they do. So many people here are really nice. They smile when you smile. And when you ask them a question, they are so willing to help.
Today, I am starting to get over the culture shock and I am really starting to enjoy myself. I feel like we are doing a great thing by being here and I believe it is making us all better and more well rounded individuals. I can't wait to see what happens in the days to come. I feel that we have a good chance to locate the Goettge Patrol.
Updated July 14, 2008