This from Saturday's FIJI TIMES:
Reardon hunts missing men
Saturday, July 15, 2006
THREE weeks ago a team from the Joint Personnel POW/MIA Accountability Command of the United States of America began a recovery mission for the remains of a World War II pilot.
The mission was carried out in highlands of Naitasiri where two villagers out hunting for wild pigs in 2004 had seen the wreckage of a plane.
The plane was said to have crashed there in April, 1942, but a search carried out a few days later proved futile as neither the plane nor the pilot was found.
The first person from the American Embassy to make his way up there was Colonel Patrick Reardon, who had arrived only five days earlier in the country.
He was told of the wreckage up in the highlands and headed up there to check if it belonged to the USA.
"I had only been here for five days when I had to go up to the hills," he said.
"I didn't have my uniform with me, I didn't have my boots and I had to borrow people's stuff to go up there," Colonel Reardon said.
"We made it up there and we were able to see the writing on the aircraft so we thought problem solved," he said.
"And we found the tail section of the aircraft and thought everything was good and we sent all the information back to Hawaii."
"But they said, can you go back up there to find the data plate because without the data plate, you can't really confirm anything."
Colonel Reardon said there was a name on the tail section of the plane, the result of pilots of the time personalising their aircraft.
He said in addition to the name, there was a picture just beneath it but it wasn't enough to provide positive identification of the plane or the pilot.
He said the data plate carried details like the serial number and the type of aircraft, allowing for easier identification.
He said based on the serial number of the aircraft, retracing who the aircraft belonged to and what happened to it would be a lot easier.
"It took us a while, we had to go back there towards the end of 2004 to search for the data plate and it was very interesting," said Colonel Reardon.
He said a sketch of the aircraft was given to help them locate the data plate because the plane was so mangled.
"But because of the wreckage, it's hard to determine what part is what so it took us a long time to actually find it.
"We got up there early in the morning and by the middle of the afternoon, we found it," he said.
Colonel Reardon said the wreck was very "bad".
"It's a very lonely area (the wreck site), we're talking about a very hilly area and the villagers didn't really know that it was an aircraft that actually crashed there," he said.
He said that was why no one went there all these years even though villagers took cattle or hunted for wild pigs there.
"It's a very remote and mountainous area and it just happened, the two villagers happened to walk to that specific spot and saw the glint of the metal and were curious and went closer," he said.
He said the media got wind of the wreck and went up there before he did.
He said it was a very steep area and he went there the next day but there were still some media people there as well.
"I made two trips in 2004 and a couple of trips last year, I've been up there like six times," he said.
And during all those times, he trekked back and forth to the site but made it a point to get there early in order to return the same day.
"So I'd go up, do what I needed to do and when you go back, you have to up and down and around," he said gesturing.
"If I take people up there, it would take three-and-a-half-hours to four hours," he said.
But he said, if one trekked up there at a pace, one could be able to make it there pretty quick.
He said the villagers were very fit and trekked to the site and back with no problem.
"But yeah, it's a very lonely place for the pilot who died, very sad and remote but it's a very tranquil place because of the flowing creek," he said.
"It's lonely but tranquil," said Colonel Reardon.
"Last year, JPAC sent some people to verify what I had seen so they sent a team of three and they went up to the place."
From that, he said, they were able to organise a recovery team to come because everything had to be done according to a schedule.
"So last year, they verified that there was indeed a wreckage there and scheduled a mission for this year," he said.
He said the mission started in mid-June when a team came to coordinate and make sure everything was in place.
He said there was an earlier team that came to make sure everything up there was good and in place.
"That's why I've been up there so many times.
"But the villagers have been very cooperative, they have done everything we asked for and we couldn't ask for better cooperation."
Colonel Reardon did everything up to the recovery and execution phase but had to go to Hawaii and missed part of the actual recovery mission.
He recounted how the plane had crashed there, saying the pilot had been sent from Nausori with another head pilot in another aircraft.
They had been sent to intercept Japanese planes that were reported to have flown towards Fiji but 10 minutes into the flight, the mission was cancelled.
Colonel Reardon believes the two aircraft were flying very low and may have been trying to make it over the mountains when one met its fatal end.
He said the pilot's class ring was found, his wallet with a few coins, a Fijian coin, a US quarter and another that appeared to be the pilot's lucky coin because it was smooth on one side.
He said the pilot was declared officially missing after a search was carried out in the days following the crash and a few years later, he was declared officially dead.
The remains of the pilot are now with the American Embassy and will be taken back to the US on Tuesday for the pilot's final journey home after 64 years.
Greater details on the pilot will be made available once proper identification procedures are complete and his family have been notified.
Only then will the family of the pilot be able to bid a proper farewell to the long lost pilot.