They trek for days through -crocodile-infested swamps and up rain-lashed mountain jungles, but the members of the Malaya Historical Group are not seeking treasure or ancient artifacts. Instead, they’re after rusty wreckage.
Over the past decade, the six amateur Malaysian military historians have helped locate the confirmed or suspected crash sites of 30 World War II aircraft — helping bring closure for the families of more than 40 missing British and US aircrews.
Nearly 70 years after the end of the war, at least 100 British and US aircraft wrecks are believed scattered across the jungles of India, Thailand and Malaysia, along with the remains of their crews. As well as the battles for the Pacific Islands, Allied forces waged war against Japanese forces whose regional conquests included previously -British-held Singapore and Malaysia — known then as Malaya.
“What we do is to find whichever wrecks are in Malaysia and help identify them so that relatives can get closure after waiting for more than six decades,” group leader Shaharom Ahmad says.
During the week, Shaharom, 37, is a technical engineer with Malaysian state news agency Bernama.
However, he and his fellow war buffs have carried out 40 weekend expeditions over the past decade, searching for the wrecks of long-missing Allied aircraft that crashed or were shot down.
Such sites “are a crucial part of the story of the war in the Pacific,” said military historian Christopher McDermott, who works for the US Joint Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Command (JPAC).
He said at least 550 Americans went missing over the jungles and seas of Southeast Asia as a result of air raids, patrols and cargo and reconnaissance missions.
Finding crash sites, he adds, can provide “positive identification for the return of remains to the families of the missing service members.”
Shaharom says the group’s research into US and British archives indicate the wrecks of at least 15 to 20 Allied aircraft are still yet to be examined in Malaysia. Seven of the sites have been discovered so far, but the whereabouts of the others are not yet known.
Guided by whatever, often sketchy, information is available from a flight’s last location, the group’s members search likely areas on treks that take several days, often in dense jungle.
Once found, sites are left undisturbed, but meticulously photographed and the pictures are uploaded to their Web site.
From there, a worldwide network of similarly minded amateur war buffs weighs in, analyzing the find.
“Within a matter of days, sometimes hours, we are able to identify the wrecks and even get hold of the family of the pilots who were missing for so many years to tell them that the remains of their loved ones have been found,” Shaharom said.
Started as a hobby in 1996, the group’s work soon became a passion after members were moved by the heartfelt responses of airmen’s families. Its work is funded by members or whatever private donations they can scrape together.
In one case, the group in 2009 reached and identified the crash of a US Air Force DC-3 transport that disappeared shortly after the war over Perak State during a routine flight in November 1945.
Its remains had first been spotted from the air in 1966, but nothing was done until the Malaysian wreck hunters found the site and pilots’ relatives were contacted via the Internet. JPAC is now planning an excavation in 2013.