The past week was fraught with delays and challenges, brought on by rumours in the Burmese press about our team digging too close to the runway (we were not), safety concerns from government officials, permit and access issues at the airport, and finally a ban on operating our heavy equipment during daylight hours.
Fortunately, we were able to tackle all of these problems with the assistance of our Burmese partners Shwe Taung Por, and their always helpful and willing workforce coordinated on site by General Manager U Pe Win and our indefatigable translator and fixer Daw Tin Ma Latt . However, we had to do so under the glare of not just the midday sun made famous in Noel Coward’s description of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, but also of the media spotlight.
The British press, impatient with our progress and eager for a story of triumph or tragedy relating to Spitfires, were quick to declare our defeat when none was identified. But, while understandable in journalistic terms, that was to misunderstand what the expedition to Yangon International Airport was genuinely about. As the Project Lead Archaeologist Andy Brockman explained during the press launch at the Imperial War Museum back in November 2012, the expedition was not primarily (for us) a recovery operation. Although had Spitfires, or even parts of Spitfires or other aircraft, been found as might be expected on an airfield where many types of British, American and Japanese aircraft were maintained , the team would have been delighted and we would have recovered them using the best available technical expertise and performing the work to the highest ethical standards. Rather, it was CSI Missing Spitfires; an evidence led, scientific study into how the legend of the Spitfires of Burma arose and whether it has a basis in fact. To accomplish that task it was necessary to see the facts in the ground at Yangon and the physical context of the purported ‘crime scene.’
Seen in that context, and despite the challenges and difficult working conditions, our team managed to do good geophysics, a good landscape study, and good excavation work with which to support the extensive work on contemporary documents and air photographs, including a series of overlays which showed the team what structures were actually on the ground at Yangon during the time the legend came into being and how the airport works extending the airport during 1945 and 1946 changed the physical landscape of the site.
Here is a little teaser suggesting something of what the team have accomplished in the past two weeks. The geophysics team were asked to supply the physical context to the excavation site enabling us to understand the natural and man-made structures without damaging the site. To do so Roger Clark, Adam Booth and Andy Merritt surveyed an area of over 52,000 square metres or 191,552 square feet. in often brutally hot conditions. They accomplished this task using a range of instruments (see blog entry 27) and succeeded in compiling a map of underground features at Yangon Airport which enabled the Archaeological Field Director, Martin Brown to target the excavation and eliminate areas less likely to produce useful information.
Having relocated the 2004 survey grid the team identified the identified the area around old “Prome Road” as being vital in locating the various activities suggested by the “witness” statements quoted by David Cundall. Properly known as the No 1 Pyay Road, prior to 1946 the road cut across a taxi way to the north west maintenance and dispersal area of RAF Mingaladon and ran around the western end of the principle runway of the three located at the airfield. In the spring of 1946 it was from somewhere within an approximately 200m stretch of this road that Stanley Coombe looked out of the left hand side of the army truck he was travelling in for a few seconds and saw large wooden boxes lined up near the old taxiway and briefly again a day later, this time from across the airfield in the area of the Military Cantonment.
The geophysics showed some interesting anomalies in the survey areas, but alas nothing that suggested buried crates. However, it was necessary to further test the legend that crated Spitfire Aircraft were buried at former RAF Mingaladon. Therefore, having agreed the trench locations with David Cundall, the team employed a standard archaeological method whereby the team’s highly skilled digger operator Manny Machado, opened up four trenches, the longest of which was about 40 meters long and about three or four metres deep . The excavation team then cleaned and finished the trenches using hand tools as appropriate, recording the whole process by field notes, scale drawings and photographs.
As the archaeological assessment had predicted, all the archaeology we located was within the top 2-3m of the soil and at about 3 metres below the surface across the site we hit natural geology (grey coloured clay) that may have lain undisturbed for as much as 20,000 years. Obviously the planes could not be buried underneath such geology.
By Sunday 20th January, two weeks after our arrival, we had not found buried Spitfires in the locations which David had suggested and we we examined. We did however find some cool WW2 era artefacts and remains of structures – or as field archaeologist and munitions expert Rod Scott put, “we’ve found the war!” These findings will be detailed in a report which we’ll formally present in London later this spring.
There is another area of interest to David Cundall outside the inner perimeter fence at Mingaladon, which retired geology professor U. Soe Thein (a member of STP) and his team of students will survey in the coming weeks. They first need to secure permission from the government to excavate at this location. Meanwhile, our UK and US based teams are wrapping up their work and will shortly head back to the UK, as teaching duties and other projects await.
David will be heading up to Myitkyina to examine the site and excavate what the STP team has identified as a crate or wooden surface, which they located in December. They need to dig a deep trench uphill from the location, set up sump pumps, and draw down the local water table, so they can begin excavations. We will follow their progress in the coming weeks and will return if they find any planes. Regardless of whether planes are found, we all hope to return to Myanmar/Burma at some point in the future.
This expedition has been an unprecedented cooperation between an international team of experts and the people of Myanmar, facilitated by our partners STP and with the assistance in the background of both the Myanmar and UK governments; something which would have been impossible even a year ago.
As Myanmar continues to open up to the possibilities of tourism and business with foreign partners, we hope our small start will inspire future projects which seek to explore the links between our various peoples and Myanmar/Burma which were forged in war and the struggle for independence, but which we can now explore together in a time of shared hope
With that goes the further hope that that one day the families of veterans, military historians and enthusiasts will visit the conflict sites of the forgotten war in Burma in the same way and the same numbers, as when they visited the sites of conflict in northern France and Belgium, and that when there they do they will look, wonder and remember as we did at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Taukkyan.
Our team believes that the true memory of that forgotten war is far more important than any single artefact from it- however iconic or valuable, because it is the memory which brings together people from all over the world in one of the most beautiful and vibrant nations of South East Asia.
As one of the most moving pieces of literature to come out of the World War Two in Burma “the Kohima Prayer” says…
“For your tomorrow we gave our today.”
It is up to all of us to work together to make that today as good as it can be.
Andy Brockman and Tracy Spaight