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Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 01:37 UK

'It seemed to be a body from WWII'

A team of Australian investigators is preparing an expedition to the arduous Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea, after a hiker spotted what is believed to be the body of a World War II airman hanging from a tree. The BBC's Becky Branford found out more.

History is alive on the densely forested slopes north of Port Moresby, the Papua New Guinea capital.

What appear to be the "feet" are visible in the canopy (image courtesy of Lisa Fabre)

The hillsides around what is known as the Kokoda Trail are littered with rusting guns, grenades and mortars - reminders of the strategically crucial battles that raged there in 1942 and 1943.

Hundreds of Australians lost their lives fighting off an invading Japanese force that probably planned to use Port Moresby as a bridgehead for an assault on the Australian mainland. Japanese losses were several times heavier.

David Collins, who leads treks along the Kokoda Trail, is used to imagining how the stench of death, sickness and starvation once hung heavy in the air in what is now a verdant and peaceful landscape.

But he little imagined that he would one day be confronted with what is probably the corpse of one of the many fighters who lost their lives.

'The wind caught it'

Mr Collins was leading an expedition of 19 assorted off-duty police officers, businessmen and photographers along the Trail - thought to be some of the most rugged hiking terrain in the world.

If it had been me, I would never have discovered the body, but when it started swinging back and forth, you could see the shape of it
David Collins
Expedition leader

The discovery was made on 28 August, by one of the members of the expedition - a man who has requested to be referred to only as John.

He had stopped to take a photo of flowers in the canopy, Mr Collins told the BBC.

"If you knew the trek, you don't often look up, because you're watching your footfall the whole time - it's very slippery and muddy, and can be quite dangerous," Mr Collins said.

"John stopped to take a photo of the canopy, and saw something that didn't seem quite right through his viewfinder. He watched it for a little bit longer and the wind blew, and caught it, sending it spinning, and it seemed to be a body."

There was an immediate sense that an exciting discovery had been made, Mr Collins said, and other members of the expedition team were called back to take a look for themselves.

That it was a body was not immediately apparent, Mr Collins said.

"I'll be honest, I couldn't even see it at first, because it was quite high up in the canopy, about 12-15 metres [40-50 feet] up," he said.

Map

"But once again the wind blew, and it started spinning and dangling. That was when you could make out the shape of a body. But it was covered in moss, and if it had been me, I would never have discovered it, even looking straight at it, but when it started swinging back and forth, you could see the shape of it.

"And when it swung backwards it had around it what looked like a sort of aluminium frame or harness, and it appeared to be caught in a cable in the tree."

The assumption at this point, said Mr Collins, is that the body - if it is a body - is that of an airman who was wearing some kind of parachute harness at the time of his death.

One expedition member even thought he could make out a moss-covered pair of flying goggles around the corpse's neck.

Mysteries

If the find is confirmed, one key question will be how the body survived decades hanging in the tree.

The extreme elevation of the forest in which the body was found - about 2,200m (7,220 feet) above sea could have helped to preserve the body.

Moss would then have grown over it, preserving its shape.

Another mystery is the nationality of the airman - whether he was from Japan, Australia or the United States, which also had forces in the area. Fighters from all sides remain unaccounted for.

The Australian Defence Department is sending a team to the isolated spot, along with a group of Papua New Guinean expedition porters, to try to recover the apparent remains in the coming days.

For Australians, the area is hallowed ground, Mr Collins said. During World War II, the region was part of territory governed by Australia - it is believed the only time that Australians have had to fight on their own soil.

Their ultimately successful campaign in the area also proved a turning point in the struggle for the Pacific.

This discovery serves as a poignant reminder of the horror wrought by war, some 65 years on.


SEE ALSO
Papua hikers find 'WWII airman'
29 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Papua New Guinea
23 Jan 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Papua New Guinea
15 May 08 |  Country profiles

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