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‘Vanished’ lays to rest one WWII mystery

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the number of American service personnel still missing from World War II now stands at roughly 73,000. Of that number, well over half disappeared in the Pacific theater of war, where dense jungle and vast expanses of open sea can make recovery efforts all but impossible. Given these logistical difficulties – and the fact that almost 70 years have passed since the end of the conflict – it would seem unlikely that many of these MIA cases are ever going to be resolved. And yet, as Wil Hylton reports in his new book, Vanished, the search does go on, and identifiable remains of the lost do still turn up – to the anguished relief of the families they left behind.

To tell the story of this ongoing mission, Hylton focuses on the plight of one particular group of missing airmen – the so-called Big Stoop crew (named after a then-popular movie character), whose B-24 was shot down in 1944 while on a bombing run near Palau. Although there were several eyewitnesses to the incident, at least two of whom claimed that men had parachuted from the plane before it crashed, no sign of the bomber’s main wreckage or its crew had ever been found. For five decades after the war, the families of the Big Stoop crew had been forced to live with the “ambiguous loss” of loved ones who were almost certainly dead but whose specific fate remained in doubt – until, that is, a California-based doctor named Pat Scannon decided to join a diving expedition in the waters around Palau.

That Scannon was the person who ultimately picked up the scent of the lost crew was something of a fluke. A weekend diving enthusiast without much scuba experience, he had joined the 1993 Palau expedition mainly as an excuse to take an exotic South Seas vacation. After he and the other divers had accomplished their objective – locating a Japanese trawler sunk in 1944 by a young pilot named George H.W. Bush – Scannon stayed on to do a little casual exploration on his own. When a local guide took him to see the remains of an airplane wing lying in the shallows off Koror Island, Scannon found himself suddenly consumed by curiosity. He simply had to find out what plane that wing had belonged to, and exactly how it had come to rest in that lonely spot.

The story of Scannon’s long (and obsessive) investigation of the Big Stoop crash provides the core of the book’s narrative. But Hylton interlaces it with numerous other threads, including accounts of the missing men’s families, a reconstruction of the bomber crew’s last mission, and the back-stories of many of the other characters – both military and civilian – who ultimately involved themselves in the search for the plane and its secrets. For such a relatively short book, Vanished has a huge cast and a lot of moving parts, but Hylton manages to juggle them with supreme adroitness. As the book rockets back and forth in time and from the South Pacific to Washington, D.C., to the various hometowns of the missing airmen, he keeps the action lean and propulsive, investing even military-archives research with a sense of urgency and excitement.

Vanished does have some rough spots. Hylton’s prose can become overheated at times, and the early chapters in particular read a little like the script of a movie trailer. (“He knew in some private place that what he needed from the islands was more precious than any stone. What he needed, he could not find anywhere else. What he needed, no one else could find.”) And there are some oddities of pacing and emphasis throughout. For instance, Hylton focuses almost entirely on the search for the B-24’s fuselage – and the men presumably trapped inside – but barely mentions the crewmen who were seen parachuting from the plane before it crashed. Their fate as captives of the Japanese is taken up only on Page 223 (of a 239-page text), and then almost as an afterthought.

But Vanished excels where it counts most – in its depiction of the war’s personal toll on those who fought it and on the families they sometimes failed to return to. Hylton managed to earn the trust of a number of the crewmen’s relatives, and their caches of saved letters – quoted liberally in the book – give the story a powerful emotional heft. Access to their correspondence also allows Hylton to bring several of the missing men to life as fleshed-out individuals whose fate we readers end up truly caring about.

The book culminates with a moving scene at Arlington Cemetery in April 2010, with most of the Big Stoop families coming together to witness the burial of some bones recovered from the plane’s fuselage, which was located in 2004. Some of the families’ long-standing questions about the crew’s last hours had by now been answered, though uncertainties still remained. But somehow the tangible presence of those bones had made the lingering unknowns less haunting, less corrosive. As Hylton writes of the families, “They had come to bury not only the dead, but the mystery and wonder.” Thanks to the work of Pat Scannon and many others like him, 60 years of pain and doubt could finally be laid to rest.

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