Stockbridge robotics team seeks WWII relics in Palau

Most people wouldn’t tie the quiet community of Stockbridge to bloody World War II fighting in South Pacific.

But a link is there. Since 2011, members of the Stockbridge High School underwater robotics team have been making yearly trips to the island-nation of Palau in an effort to find relics of the war, and, in part, to bring closure to MIAs’ families, according to the Lansing State Journal. Even after all these years.

The word has been out on the Stockbridge students for some time. The team has been featured in a “60 Minutes” segment.

This year’s trip was March 30 to April 12. While there, the students aided in the finding of a missing aircraft.

“There was an MIA case associated with it but we can’t say anymore than that until the families are notified,” teacher Robert Richards said.

The heaviest fighting took place on the island of Peleliu, at the southern tip of the Palau chain, from Sept. 15 to Nov. 27, 1944. Some 1,500 American soldiers and Marines were killed taking the island, according to various sources, as well as about 10,000 Japanese troops.

“About 200 American aircraft were lost,” Richards said. “We believe there are still around 70 MIAs from the battles around Peleliu.”

The Stockbridge team and its camera-carrying robot — or remotely operated vehicle — work with the Scripps Institute of Technology and the University of Delaware, as well as with the BentProp Project, a team of volunteers dedicated to finding and identifying American POWs and MIAs from World War II.

Palau is located due east of the Philippines. Ten students went this year, most of them for the first time. It was Maddy Armstrong’s second visit, and Chloe Hypes and Jeremy Spink have made three trips.

Hypes, who plans to attend the University of Michigan and go into pre-med studies or bio-medical engineering, said “we had the best year we’ve had yet.”

“It’s been a really great experience, especially this year, seeing how far we’re come as a team,” she said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress with our engineering skills and our teamwork skills.

“And it’s also a great class to be in,” Hypes said. “We have a lot more opportunities in this class to learn and explore our own interests than we would in any other class.”

Senior Mitchell Lilley, who plans to enroll in Alpena Community College’s remotely operated vehicle technician program, said Stockbridge’s robot has an aluminum frame, and syntactic foam is used for buoyancy. It works better than the Styrofoam used last year but it’s a lot more expensive.

Lilley said he poked around the Internet and found a company that provides it. After a company official checked on the Stockbridge program and was impressed, the company sent $1,000 worth of the stuff for free.

Richards said the remotely operated vehicle, its camera and its $1,000 worth of electronics can handle a depth of about 200 feet, although the deepest it’s gone in Palau is 189 feet.

Hypes said the Scripps Institute has an underwater vehicle that scans the ocean floor with sonar, and if anything looks interesting “it becomes our target.”

“Sometimes it ends up being some interesting-looking coral,” she said. “We’ve found ship parts before, sometimes it’s a field of barrels and then — very rarely — it’s a plane.”

Even though many of the students are scuba certified, they stay put when that happens, Hypes said.

Instead, BentProp and University of Delaware divers do the investigating after reviewing video from the students’ remotely operated vehicle. And, if remains are found, only specially skilled divers go down.

“The BentProp project has been pretty successful in identifying aircraft that have MIA cases associated with them,” Richards said. “They found a B-24 several years ago that had a crew of nine.”

Not all of the searching is underwater. This year, the team brought along two drones.

“Those allow us to fly over new terrain, such as the mangrove swamps that we can’t get into because of saltwater crocodiles,” said Spink, who plans to study unmanned aircraft systems at Kansas State University.

Richards said BentProp still is searching for three Navy frogmen who were captured by the Japanese, executed and buried in an unmarked grave.

The groups’ effort does not involve the search for Japanese remains and relics, although when wreckage is found, the location is submitted to the Japanese Embassy in Palau.

When the Stockbridge students aren’t scanning the ocean floor they’re working with college and elementary school students in Palau.

All of this costs money — some $50,000 is needed for each trip. And then there are the other robotics teams at Stockbridge High School. They need money, too.

The students generate the cash themselves through personal and local business contributions, corporate sponsorships and page donations, Richards said.

“In the past we’ve done multiple movie nights, a silent auction, we put on a presentation night for our community,” Hypes said. “This year we had a movie night at the Michigan Theatre in Jackson.”

“But this year, more than past years, we’ve reached out to corporate sponsorships,” she said. “It just continues to evolve as our program becomes more well-known.”  (AP)

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