Anderson Giles, retired University of Maine at Presque Isle professor, has made many fascinating discoveries during his trips to the Pacific to preserve the history of World War II, but none so intriguing and of such international significance as the one that was recently featured in the Chicago Tribune and other news media. While exploring a remote World War II crash site on the island of Bougainville, Giles discovered a gold tooth that may belong to a famous Japanese admiral who died at the site.
The discovery was made in July 2015, when Giles led a unique expedition to explore remote WWII battle sites in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. At each site, the group planned to pay homage to veterans who fought in the region’s historic campaigns. The expedition was organized and funded by Richard Portillo, an ex-Marine and well-known restaurant entrepreneur from Chicago. He spent more than a year selecting sites, chartering a ship and assembling a group of WWII veterans’ families, photographers and ex-Navy Seals to make the journey.
Portillo invited Giles to serve as a guide due to his extensive background in the geography and WWII history of the region. Researching WWII in the Pacific has been a long-time passion for Giles, whose father, H.A. Giles, Jr., was a member of the 4th Marine Division and participated in storming the islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. H.A. Giles, Jr. was killed in combat near the end of the Korean War when Giles was four. In honor of his father’s memory, Giles has worked for more than two decades to preserve the history of World War II in the Pacific through film, photographs, paintings and other collections.
On the trip Portillo organized to Papau New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, one of the sites chosen was the remote crash site of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Betty bomber in southern Bougainville. Yamamoto was the Commander of Japan’s powerful Combined Fleet, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, and considered one of Japan’s top strategic planners. Giles explained that Yamamoto was revered by the public and held an exalted status in Japan.
“In April 1943, through a series of remarkable events, U.S. P-38 fighters flying from Guadalcanal intercepted Yamamoto’s plane and shot it down in a remote jungle location where the wreck has lain for over 70 years,” Giles said. “Acting on top-secret information gleaned from broken Japanese codes, it was discovered that Yamamoto was making a risky visit to front line bases to bolster the morale of his forces. Top U.S. leaders realized it was a golden opportunity to remove a leader vital to Japan’s war efforts. A plan was quickly devised which required demanding, long distance flying and split-second timing. Incredibly, the plan worked and his plane was shot down in flames.”
Giles said that frantic search efforts for survivors by the Japanese were hampered by heat and dense jungle. When the wreckage was discovered two days later, there were no survivors. It was reported by the search party that Yamamoto was found in near perfect condition, strapped to his seat as if peacefully asleep. This description has been generally accepted for over 70 years. A number of authors, however, have questioned the validity of this scenario and suggested that this account was fabricated to ensure his mythic status in Japan. His remains were later cremated. Author John Toland reported that over a million people lined the streets of Tokyo for his state funeral.
To reach the wreck site, the group Giles led made a grueling 24-kilometer drive over rough roads and through jungle streams, and then a 4-kilometer hike in 95-degree heat through knee-deep mud and jungle-shrouded trails. Finally reaching the site, Giles remembered being immediately struck by the impression that “no human body could have survived being thrown through the devastated, burnt wreckage without being severely injured.”
While examining and documenting the wreckage, Giles stepped in the deep mud near where the left side of the plane’s cockpit containing Yamamoto’s seat would have hit the jungle floor. This section of the plane was totally destroyed. Out of the mud, a shiny glint caught Giles’ eye and, upon picking the object up, he realized it was a gold tooth.
Having done extensive research on the event, Giles knew that Yamamoto had been hit in the jaw by a 50-caliber bullet, which would most likely have shattered his teeth and killed him before he hit the ground. He would have then been thrown through the metal framework of the cockpit. Giles realized that the tooth was in the spot where his remains would have ended up and that he might be holding a gold tooth from Yamamoto. After documentation of the discovery, a PNG customs official turned over the find to the local landowner, as is the custom in that region.
After over a year of negotiations and a payment of $14,000 by Portillo, the tooth was recently returned to the U.S. A number of dental specialists have examined the tooth and concluded that it is a unique specimen from that era, which only someone of high status would have had access to. They also concluded that it showed evidence of violent separation.
“If the tooth proves to be from Yamamoto,” Giles said, “the 73-year-old account of him being discovered intact still strapped to his seat, hand on his sword as if he were sleeping peacefully like some mythic warrior will be forever altered.”
At present, researchers in Japan are trying to discover if dental records for Yamamoto still exist. The possibility of DNA testing is also being examined. Photographic portraits of Japanese military leaders rarely showed smiles and teeth in order to project a stern countenance. A project researcher, however, has discovered one rare photo, which shows a dental anomaly in the area where the tooth would have come from. Plans are in process to create a documentary that explores the remarkable story of this WWII episode.
“My examination of the wreck site and the discovery of the tooth, combined with an examination of available historical facts, leads one to the following questions: Has the generally accepted historical account of Yamamoto’s mythic death scenario existed as a fabrication for over 70 years? Is there another more accurate version to the demise of one of the Pacific war’s most notable figures? And can this find generate a re-evaluation and fresh look at the truth concerning this historic event?”
As with many of Giles’ WWII projects, only time will tell.