As seen in the December 2004 edition of W&ET Magazine
South Pacific Relic Hunter
By: Ed Fedory
Photos By: Peter Flahvin
Looking back over the years, it's easy to see that I have long enjoyed a fondness for stories- especially war stories. As a young boy I well remember badgering my father for tales of his exploits in World War II. I would promise anything... mow the lawn... weed the garden... paint the fence... just to listen to a few new stories, or a retelling of some of my favorites. Sitting here in my office, I just have to swivel to the right and cast a glance upward to the top shelf of my bookcase to see Dad's helmet and dog tags... and that simple glance is enough to bring back many of those old stories. Upon closer examination the leather band bears the names of some of the places where that helmet protected my father... Saipan... Iwo Jima... Eniwetok... Kwajalein.
Many U.S. and Japanese grenades have been recovered at Gifu village- mostly live, and some with the pins half out!
When I wasn't pestering my father for war stories, I was usually found watching them on TV. The cameras were really rolling during World War II, and it certainly wouldn't surprise me to hear that a new war movie came out every week during those years. I climbed the black sands of Iwo Jima with John Wayne... it was me who was feeding that last belt of machine gun ammo to Robert Preston in his final stand on Wake Island... and it was me who walked beneath those shattered palms with William Bendix, Floyd Nolan, and Anthony Quinn at Guadalcanal.
Relic hunters occasionally uncover WWII period pocket change dropped by Japanese and American soldiers.
I guess it was that fascination for the Pacific Campaign of World War II, learned as a child, still carried as a man, that caused me to search down some information on those battle sites today. It was during one of those searches that I met a World War II Pacific Campaign relic hunter, Peter Flahvin.
Sometimes it's personal. The names NIELSEN, PVT. RUSSELL CHRISTOPHER BRIDGES, and PFC FRED DELAY were scratched onto one canteen. Another was marked M. ROMERO, with his serial number. "Through research I found out that he enlisted in November 1941 and was discharged in September 1943," says Pete, "so at least he survived Guadalcanal, even if he left his bottle behind."
Peter's particular passion is that Battle of Guadalcanal. During his numerous trips to the island he has relic hunted, collected, interviewed, and photographed many of the sites and people who well remember those dark days of the early war when America was still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Scouring the Seahorse battle area turned up lots of personal items from positions and foxholes: toothbrushes, pens, cutlery.... even intact medic kit morphine vials.
Seeking to capitalize on the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, it was decided to make a strategic move in the southwest Pacific. To this end, parallel attacks were planned against Rabaul Island, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands Chain. Guadalcanal became a main focus due to the building of an airfield that would threaten all U.S. troops in the area.
Over half a century later, some helmets- including a few holed by bullets and shrapnel- remained in remarkably good shape, along with canteens and mess kit items.
On August 7, 1942, 11,000 Marines landed, uncontested, on the beaches of Guadalcanal. It wouldn't be long before the situation began to heat up on the island. The Japanese began running reinforcements through "The Slot," a water passage between Bougainville and Guadalcanal. These continual reinforcement operations were called the Tokyo Express by the marines occupying the island and attempting to complete the airfield.
Even today, knowing it's as harmless as a rusty old pipe, there's still something unsettling about staring down the bore of a big gun!
On the night of August 20, 1942, a fanatical Banzai attack by 6,000 Japanese defenders surged up the slopes of a ridge occupied by a far smaller contingent of young marines. Whatever the ridge was named before the battle, by the following dawn it was called Edson's Ridge, after Colonel "Red" Mike Edson, who led the Marine forces. Looking down the slopes of the ridge in the light of dawn, the exhausted marines viewed the bodies of over 800 dead Japanese soldiers who had fallen before their lines.
Another find from Seahorse was this revolver. Probably a .38, it still has traces of bluing on it. "A good cleanup and new grips," remarks Pete, and it would look great- and fire!
This area of what has become known as "Bloody Ridge" has been walked and searched by Peter many times. "You can never tell what might just turn up," he stated. "I remember this one particular hunt. We were searching the area of the battle and we found a live American grenade... soon to be followed by a live Japanese grenade. We turned both of these over to the authorities for disposal."
Obviously, searching in such areas needs a lot of care and no small amount of caution.
Historical researcher and relic hunter Peter Flahavin pauses atop Hill 281 at Tulagi to inspect a Japanese 13mm machine gun round.
"Villagers will come out of their huts with all kinds of live ammunition, mortar rounds, and grenades they've dug up in their gardens, offering them for sale. This one young boy once asked me if I remembered him from one of my earlier trips... I sure did! He was the one that came running toward me, across the small village square, with a live grenade in his hand!
Fallen but not forgotten, the remains of an American fighter plane are a solemn reminder of the ultimate price others paid for our freedom.
"We've attempted using metal detectors," added Peter, "but some parts of the island are strewn with so much shrapnel from the heavy naval bombardments that it makes them almost useless. Sometimes you just want to pack lightly when you're in the thick of the jungle... and carry a lot of water.
Rusted wreckage from the Japanese transport Kyusyu Maru remains on the beach at Doma Cove, where she was sunk in September 1942.
"Just keeping your eyes open can often produce a number of battle artifacts that have washed out of the slopes and ravines. This is especially true when the villagers clear some of the underbrush by burning it. These are usually very productive areas, and numerous relics have been found right on the surface. You also have to keep your eyes open for barbed wire... there's a lot of it around, still strung in defensive lines. It still cuts deep, and boy, do the flies love that!"
At the Vilu open-air museum near Cape Esperance, visitors can view these Japanese 150mm and 105mm guns.
From the photos Peter has taken of his adventures on Guadalcanal, it appears that the litter of war is all over the place... downed Japanese "Betty" aircraft... the rusting hulks of American and Japanese tanks... anti-aircraft guns... amtrac graveyards... the remains of Japanese transport ships just off the beaches. For those interested in World War II relic hunting it would seem a paradise- find the relics, and obtain a permit to remove them from the island. However, all is not as it appears to be.
The Solomons Museum displays a variety of weapons collected by RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands) troops and police in 2003, and others acquired over the years by a Catholic mission down the coast. Plans are now underway for a new building which will permit more extensive exhibits.
An influx of refugees from other Solomon Islands has caused a great deal of social and economic unrest on Guadalcanal in recent years, and it is now very unsafe to go to certain areas on the island. Armed rebel militants control many areas, and entire villages have been deserted.
Deadly serious! Nicknamed the "Grease Gun", the M3 submachine gun could rip out up to 450 rounds a minute.
With the guns of war having been silent for numerous decades, the sounds of gunfire can once again be heard in the jungles of Guadalcanal. This fact certainly adds a little more adventure to relic hunting... a little more than I would relish. If I'm digging a hole in the ground, it's going to be for the recovery of a relic... not another foxhole! Author's Note: If you would like to learn more about Peter's adventures on Guadalcanal and view numerous battlefield relics found there, check out www.pacificwrecks.com a wonderful site for those interested in the World War II Pacific Campaign!