Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II
- Wil S. Hylton
- Riverhead Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by James A. Percoco
- February 5, 2014
An absorbing forensic narrative that combines historical detective work with a long-forgotten tale of WWII aviation.
During the 20th century, more than 80,000 American service personnel were listed as missing in action. More than 70 percent, or 56,000, went missing in World War II’s Pacific Theatre of operations alone. In Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, what starts out as a search to locate a missing World War II B-24 bomber that went down off the coast of Palau becomes in Wil S. Hylton’s skillful prose more of a search for the fate and stories of the bomber’s 11-man, mostly missing-in-action crew.
Our main storyteller is Pat Scannon, an M.D. with a doctorate in chemistry who is also an entrepreneur, adventurer, historian, detective, archaeologist, and real-life Indiana Jones. Scannon first encounters the wreckage eventually determined to be the missing B-24 bomber, called The Big Stoop,during a 1993 diving expedition. For years he is haunted by the memory of the 70-foot-long bomber, with its wingspan of over 100 feet, lying in shallow water. The wreckage offers only a single clue to the identity of the bomber: its tail number, 453. While people witnessed several crew members bailing out after the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, none of the crew ever returned to post-World War II America. Along with historical and archaeological curiosity, the mystery of their fate drives Scannon on his mission.
Scannon has sunk 10 years and thousands of personal dollars into what he calls the BentProp Project. He treks through jungle islands, crisscrosses the Pacific and the United States, digs in archives, works with the federal government’s Graves Registration Service, and reaches out to the crew’s remaining family members to uncover what transpired for the men.
Hylton’s book is the ultimate “contact sport” of history and prodigious research, for while The Big Stoop remains the protagonist, its crew is brought back to life through letters and personal reflection of the living about the dead. Crew members who were serving their country, and seem to have vanished, have been, in some short measure, resurrected by virtue of both Scannon and Hylton.
Deep inside this story is the mission The Big Stoop was on. World War II military strategy included a technique called “island hopping.” American land, air, and sea forces targeted certain distant islands, bypassing closer islands in order to cut them off from Japanese supply while at the same time establishing bases from which bombers could strike the Japanese homeland. Struggles among American war planners in the Pacific, principally General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, reveal that The Big Stoop was lost as a result of this technique, shot down by the Japanese during the bombing of far-flung islands.
Fittingly, the story ends with Taps in Arlington National Cemetery. Readers will find the conclusion memorable, as all the pieces come together in a narrative that resonates on a variety of intellectual and emotional levels. A solemn military coming home remains special for friends and family members of The Big Stoop.
Vanished will immerse readers — history buffs and others — in a stirring adventure where history and mystery collide. In the end, it is also a story of bringing closure to loved ones and healing a decades-long sense of loss.
James A. Percoco is the director of education for the Friends of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments, and a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.