'Call Me Dog Tag Man': Pacific Island Is Full of War Relics and Human Remains

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'Call Me Dog Tag Man': Pacific Island Is Full of War Relics and Human Remains
A compass in a collection of war relics found on the Indonesian island of Biak is displayed on June 10, 2021. More than 75 years after the Battle of Biak ended, collectors are still finding remnants of the fight, and U.S. authorities are hoping to bring closure to families of soldiers still missing. (Ulet Ifansasti/The New York Times.

by Dera Menra Sijabat and Richard C. Paddock

BIAK.- On a remote coral island in Indonesia, a history lover who keeps a collection of old bombs in his living room scours the jungle for war relics — and sometimes finds human bones, too.

“People call me Dog Tag Man,” said Alberth Wakum, who hopes one day to open a museum showcasing his discoveries. “I preserve the evidence of history and keep it from perishing.”

The island of Biak, where Wakum, 58, has spent nearly his entire life, was the scene of a fierce World War II battle as Gen. Douglas MacArthur campaigned to take back the western Pacific from Japanese forces. There were thousands of casualties on both sides.

The remains of about 150 American soldiers who died in the fighting on Biak have never been recovered. They are among about 1,900 U.S. service members believed killed in Indonesia over the course of the war and whose remains are still missing.

For decades, Wakum and other collectors have combed the battlefields of Biak and nearby islands, recovering weapons, munitions and the bones of soldiers.

Wakum, who said he has found 30 U.S. dog tags, wears some on a chain around his neck. He sold others many years ago to help pay for his brother’s education but now regrets parting with them.

Sometimes his neighbors mock him for collecting what they deem “rubbish” or complain that he is stirring up ghosts of the war dead, who follow him home from his searches.

“People say I’m doing a stupid job because I don’t make money out of this,” he said. “But for researchers, writers, collectors of art and history lovers, this has meaning.”

Last year, the United States and Indonesian governments agreed to establish a joint operation to find and repatriate the remains of U.S. soldiers lost in action across the vast archipelago. Biak, a heavily forested island about the size of Maui that lies off the northwest coast of New Guinea, will be a primary search site.

On a recent day, Wakum and a cousin, Firaun Koibur, 39, also a collector, searched a rugged area of coral outcroppings where U.S. soldiers are believed to have camped during the monthslong battle for Biak.

There, lying in plain sight, was the dog tag of an American soldier, Fred W. O’Connor of Schenectady, New York.

“Soldiers losing their dog tags is very common,” said Poul Erik Graversen, a historical archaeologist with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and lead researcher for the recovery effort in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The O’Connor family was astounded to learn of the dog tag’s discovery more than 75 years after the war. According to family records, O’Connor served in the infantry in the Papua, New Guinea and Southern Philippines campaigns and participated in major assaults without ever being wounded. He died in California in 2004 at 83.

“My father was a man of acceptance and grace, but all the carnage affected him greatly,” said his daughter, Patricia Cherin.

Before the pandemic, many Japanese visitors and some Americans came to Biak looking for information about relatives who fought here. Divers also came to explore the sunken vessels and downed aircraft offshore.

Even before the pandemic, Biak attracted fewer than 4,000 foreign tourists a year, mostly from Japan. Many of the island’s 120,000 people get by on farming and fishing.

The Indonesian archipelago was a Dutch colony when the Japanese invaded and occupied it in 1942. Allied forces launched their assault on Biak in May 1944. The fighting continued for three months before the Allied forces took the island, which then became an important air base for attacking Japanese strongholds.

At the request of The New York Times, Graversen reviewed photos of 125 dog tags found by Wakum and other collectors. Just one was identified as belonging to a soldier whose remains are still missing, Sgt. Louis L. Medina of New Mexico.

Assigned to the Army Air Forces, the sergeant took off on a bombing run from Biak in July 1944. His aircraft was shot down and crashed into the sea hundreds of miles away. The plane and its six crew members remain unaccounted for. It is most likely he lost his dog tag at some point while stationed on the island. (The Times informed his family of the discovery.)

The family of another collector, Yusuf Rumaropen, owns one of the many caves occupied by Japanese soldiers during the battle. U.S. aircraft bombed it, blowing a large hole in the roof.

Rumaropen, 59, started a museum there in 1985. His exhibits include a derelict Japanese airplane, three jeeps, machine guns, mortar shells and more than 1,000 other items, many displayed outdoors.

One of his first finds was a U.S. pilot’s ring, which brought him local fame.

Learning of a plane that had crashed in a remote jungle, he found the wreck in 1980. The pilot’s skeleton was still in the cockpit, and Rumaropen removed a ring from its finger. The pilot’s name, W.E. Frankfort, was engraved inside.

The ring was too valuable to exhibit at the museum, so he displayed photos of it instead.

It took nearly a decade, but word of the ring eventually reached the Indonesian army. An officer confiscated it and turned it over to U.S. officials, who enlisted Rumaropen’s help in locating the plane and recovering the pilot’s remains in 1994.

For his effort, he received an official letter expressing the U.S. Army’s “deep and sincere appreciation.” It hangs in the museum next to photos of the ring.

He also found the bones of many soldiers. Most were identified by forensic experts as Japanese and cremated in the 1990s. About 20 were identified as American, and Rumaropen said he buried them near his museum. U.S. experts have never examined them.

The Japanese suffered far greater casualties in the Battle of Biak than the Allies. Near Biak, on the tiny island of Musaki, more than 30 skulls and a large pile of human bones believed to be the remains of Japanese soldiers are displayed in a hut.

For some on Biak and smaller islands nearby, acquiring the relics is not about history.

Samggar Usior, a fisherman on Owi Island, a 45-minute boat ride from Biak, began buying relics from scavengers as a young man. He wanted live munitions for gunpowder so he could make bottle bombs to use in reef fishing. Dropping explosives on coral reefs to kill or stun fish has been a common and destructive method of fishing in Indonesia.

When he was in his 20s, a bomb blew up in his right hand and doctors amputated his arm at the elbow. He has been warning people ever since not to make the same mistake.

“It’s all right if you die because of the explosion,” said Usior, now 60. “But if you’re like me and lose an arm, it’s tough to work in the sea, especially when the wind is strong. Rowing with one arm is like half dying.”

Wakum said the mortar shells and hand grenades on display in his living room have been disarmed. His collection also includes various kinds of ammunition, gas masks, U.S. and Japanese helmets and hundreds of other items.

“I was born in Biak, and I want to protect these war relics from the scavengers,” he said. “If they take them all, tomorrow’s generation won’t be able to learn the history.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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