We are on the move in the True North helicopter. Below us is the rain-covered jungle, where Alan, our pilot, is searching for the landing position with the help of an app. At short notice, the True North has received clearance from Bougainville Air Traffic Control for the route that the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroto might have chosen for his small squadron on April 18, 1943.
Admiral Yamomoto, who triggered America’s entry into World War II with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, remained a dangerous adversary for the United States as long as he lived. After American intelligence was able to decode a coded Japanese radio message, Operation Vengeance took its course.
Unlike the Australians, who are more familiar with the history of the World War in the Pacific, I have no particular expectations of the plane wreck lying lonely in the impenetrable hinterland. But the course of our mission is to be a memorable experience.
40 minutes ago we took off from our ship, the True North, in clear weather and from the cockpit the pilot Alan together with Simon are looking for the place where we are expected. Simon has arranged with the inhabitants of a village two hours away to prepare a small patch near the crash site for our landing. Roads or clearly visible markings are not visible in the jungle. The plane wreckage itself is also camouflaged by the vegetation. In addition, heavy rain showers with poor visibility shake our helicopter on the way.
Near the presumed position we discover a surprisingly large number of people already expecting us. A helicopter does not need windshield wipers itself and for the same reason it blows away all the umbrellas of the bystanders when landing.
Strangers rarely make the arduous journey to the prominent aircraft wreckage and no one has ever seen another helicopter land here. So the situation is extremely unfamiliar for everyone. I have often had the experience of attracting glances from people who have never seen anyone with white skin before. But here the expectations are especially high and our every move is silently observed.
We are also unsure; not only because the ground is soft from the rain. But people have cleared countless shrubs with their bush knives, whose leaves, like a mat, prevent us from sinking too deeply.
Unlike the bystanders who took a whole day to witness the spectacle of a helicopter landing, we came only briefly and primarily for the famous Yamamoto airplane wreck.
On the way to the crash site there are some opportunities for conversation. Even with children one can communicate in English and everyone helps in the rough terrain.
The destination is reached, but the shudder that I would have associated with the idea of the past drama does not want to set in. Everyday objects like bows and arrows or the bush knives of the bystanders keep me in the present.
The locals try to understand why the tourists are mainly interested in the historic airplane wreck. After all, Bougainville is currently experiencing the successful end of an ecological revolution. In a referendum, a large majority of the people voted in favor of seceding from Papua New Guinea, because they no longer want to be a pawn in the hands of foreign powers.
The trip to the airplane wreckage made me think. Especially retrospectively. Because in the situation there was little time to process the many impressions. How much more extreme must our short visit have seemed to the locals? Just a few years ago, they were fighting with primitive weapons against the highly armed Papua New Guinea government army for an intact nature and against a mine that poisoned entire areas. Their lives are deprived but also more tranquil than ours. I imagine that even during the Second World War and in this place hardly anyone had any idea of the importance of the event because of which we set out here at immense expense.
Today, the people of Bougainville hope that they will be received as warmly by the world’s public as the youngest country, just as they treat their visitors. Shortly before our departure we receive fresh fruits as a gift and can never forget this experience. Also because we would have liked to have had more time for conversation.
Travel advice: Australia for European tourists
The research took place during a complimentary research trip on the True North