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Scientist's Scuba Trip Sparks Search For 'Vanished' WWII Plane

More than 400,000 Americans died in World War II, but thousands of them were never found. Some died in a prison camp, and others were lost behind enemy lines — and some were on planes that were lost in the vast Pacific ocean.

On Sept. 1, 1944, a massive B-24 bomber carrying a crew of 11 people went down in the South Pacific. Its wreckage remained undiscovered, and the fate of its airmen unknown for decades. Then an American scientist, Dr. Pat Scannon, became obsessed with the mystery of these missing GIs.

Wil Hylton's new book, Vanished: The 60-Year Search for the Missing Men of WWII, is the tale of the men who crashed and the long quest to discover the truth. Hylton joins NPR's Rachel Martin to talk about the "Big Stoop Crew," the challenge of competing stories, and what one airman's son found when he dove down to the wreckage.

Interview Highlights

On how Pat Scannon became involved with the mystery

He took a much-needed vacation and went out to this tiny little island cluster in the South Pacific called Palau. And while there, just on a scuba-diving vacation of sorts, he happened upon a huge airplane wing, and as he got closer to it he was able to discern lettering indicating that it was an American bomber. And he was instantly struck by this sensation that he described to me as coldness creeping up from his feet to his scalp, and in that moment he knew that he would not be able to stop until he understood what had happened to the rest of the plane, how many men had been on it, and whether their families knew what had happened.

On the group of airmen known as the "Big Stoop Crew"

The crew of a B-24 bomber came from all different parts of the country to fill the different positions on the aircraft, but after only a brief period of knowing each other they all deployed together to the Pacific Islands to fight in the air campaign against Japan, which is a part of World War II that has been greatly overlooked in most history. So it's just these 11 men aboard an aircraft over hostile territory, taking anti-aircraft fire and trying to survive and hopefully contribute something to the war effort.

On how Scannon went about trying to figure out what happened

Wil S. Hylton is a contributing writer for <em>The New York Times Magazine.</em>
Chris Hartlove / Courtesy of Riverhead Books
Courtesy of Riverhead Books
Wil S. Hylton is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.

He started at the Air Force's historical records agency down in Alabama, but the search ballooned wildly from there, into the National Archives, and then into interviews with surviving airmen from the unit. And then it continued onto these missions that he began making at least once a year to Palau, with a backpack full of gear, which over time became increasingly complex technology that he would use to try to find the airplane, including magnetometers and infrared film that he believed he might be able to use to see through the water in the channels of the islands. So he would strap himself into the open doorway of a Cessna and have a pilot fly him over these channels and he'd be hanging out, you know, almost parallel to the surface of the water.

But the problem was all of the accounts of what happened to this airplane were different. The stories that family members heard were different from the official story that they heard, which (was) also different from the stories that Palauan tribal elders who had observed the crash heard, and so none of it added up, and it was very hard to even have a sense of where he should be looking.

On the moment when, after a decade of searching, Scannon and his team found what they believed to be the rest of the plane

It was a moment of great joy and also great sorrow ... I've seen footage of the day that that plane was found, and you can see both those emotions so clearly on the faces. There's this sort of ashen-faced horror at having found the wreckage of at least part of this aircraft. And yet there was also this sense that after having spent the first decade of this process searching and searching, wondering, that they had finally come to a point of some clarity about at least where most of the plane and many of the men wound up.

On why the son of one of the airmen traveled to Palau to dive down and see the plane himself

He told me that when he went down to the plane he still wasn't sure whether his father was on it. Like so many families, he had grown up wondering if his father had perhaps found some way to get off the plane and survive. So he got to the dive site and he made his dive down and he saw the waist-gun door — this huge yawning opening where the 50-caliber machine gun sticks out. And he reached out and he touched the plane, and he held on, and he had a conversation with his father for the first time ever, feeling that perhaps his father was there — although he still had no way to know for sure.

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