Volunteers led by businessman-historian Kenneth Moore recalled how his group found remnants of an American fighter plane that was downed by the Japanese forces during World War II, dedicating the effort as Christmas present to the surviving members of U.S. squadron "Highhatters" and the family of the lost plane's fallen Navy pilot, Lt. Roy Bechtol.
Moore, founder of the non-profit group Moore's Marauders, made special mention of Bechtol's nephew, Gregory B. Bechtol, for whom he dedicated the discovery. Japanese forces reportedly gunned down the F6F Grumman Hellcat flown by the fallen Bechtol over Pagan on June 23, 1944.
In late November 2005, with Bechtol's remains and remnants of his plane still missing over 61 years after the tragic day, the Marauders made a trip to Pagan as part of its efforts to locate missing American soldiers who fought during the Second World War in the Pacific.
Moore said Marauder Steve Baacke found the first remnant of the plane, the location of which corresponded to the description in Highhatters' action report about the ill-fated fighter plane. Baacke, a nurse and quality control director at Saipan's hospital, first noticed some three inches of fragment protruding from the ground, north of the former Japanese airstrip and west of the barracks.
"Having previously studied Japanese military aircraft, the quality of workmanship and thickness of the aluminum used, the fragment was readily identifiable as non-Japanese. Over the next three days the tiny fragment grew in proportion as it was slowly pulled from the earth. Originally assembled with a sheet of armor plating front and rear causing it to crush rather than blow apart upon impact, the piece was determined from schematics to be a Hellcat's uniquely shaped, engine oil tank," Moore narrated.
"Then came remnants of the fighter's distinct engine cowling and exhaust manifold. The bomb rack that appears in the photograph marked 'U.S. Navy' soon followed. With the aide of a devise known as a Geometrics magnotometer, whose rental was paid for by former 'Highhatter' Rudy Matz, the Marauder team was able to determine the spread pattern of the aircraft as it hit the ground, consequently providing the location of the left wing, its hydraulic system, unspent 50 caliber rounds and ultimately the cockpit," he added.
Moore said the Marauders halted the excavation upon establishing the identity of the cockpit through dozens of shards of broken plexiglass, clarifying that the group's mission was simply to locate the site, document it well enough to assure authorities of its identity, then turn its findings over to authorities for final analysis and disposition.
Moore said he immediately notified the CNMI's Historic Preservation Office and the U.S military's forensic laboratory in Honolulu, particularly the Joint Prisoners of War-Missing in Action Accounting Command, about the find.
Moore said the military's forensic laboratory experts would come to Pagan to confirm his group's discovery. The HPO also disclosed recently that Moore's group would come back to Pagan to complete excavation work.
Moore earlier said he learned about Bechtol's fate when he met with war veteran and Navy Cross medallist Rudy Matz in a recent meeting of members of the Fighter Pilots Association in San Diego, California. Matz reportedly recounted that he was flying another fighter plane above that of Bechtol near Pagan when the latter's plane went down.
Moore said Bechtol, a member of the fighting squadron Highhatters, was stationed aboard the USS Yorktown, dubbed the "Fighting Lady," the 36,200-ton American aircraft carrier on patrol in the Philippine Sea against the Japanese forces during World War II.
"On that fateful, wind-swept, tropical morn, below deck in the briefing room, Lt. Bechtol and fellow squad members were given orders to destroy the enemy airstrip maintenance facilities on an island in the Marianas archipelago, 300 miles north of Guam-its name, Pagan Island."
"Dropping at a rate of 650 feet per second (from an altitude of 3,500 feet) with each of his six, 50 caliber machine guns blazing as he strafed the enemy's barracks, Lt. Bechtol's F6F Grumman Hellcat was met with an overwhelming barrage of anti-aircraft fire from hidden enemy fortifications. His state-of-the-art fighter was instantly transformed into a burning inferno, breaking literally in two, as the rear tail section separated from the fuselage immediately aft of the pilot's seat," Moore added. Bechtol's plane spun rapidly and crashed onto the ground, he said.