In the fall of 1944, a massive American bomber carrying eleven men vanished over the Pacific islands of Palau, leaving a trail of mysteries. According to mission reports from the Army Air Forces, the plane crashed in shallow water—but when investigators went to find it, the wreckage wasn’t there. Witnesses saw the crew parachute to safety, yet the airmen were never seen again. Some of their relatives whispered that they had returned to the United States in secret and lived in hiding. But they never explained why. For sixty years, the U.S. government, the children of the missing airmen, and a maverick team of scientists and scuba divers searched the islands for clues. With every clue they found, the mystery only deepened. Now, in a spellbinding narrative, Wil S. Hylton weaves together the true story of the missing men, their final mission, the families they left behind, and the real reason their disappearance remained shrouded in secrecy for so long. This is a story of love, loss, sacrifice, and faith—of the undying hope among the families of the missing, and the relentless determination of scientists, explorers, archaeologists, and deep-sea divers to solve one of the enduring mysteries of World War II.
Expanding on his work that was originally published as an article in GQ Magazine, Wil Hylton further investigates the story of what happened to the crew (11 men in total) of a WW2 bomber that crashed over the island nation of Palau in the fall of 1944. Air Force crash reports state that the bomber crashed in shallow water, but no one in the 1940s (or for decades after) was ever able to find any wreckage. The reports also document statements from eye witnesses claiming they saw men parachuting from the plane but for over 60 years no one could determine what happened to any of the men after the moment of impact.
With his book Vanished, Hylton looks at the investigative work of Dr. Pat Scannon, a medical researcher for a biotech firm who just happened to have a side passion for military history. For over sixty years, various people tried to look into the truth of the crash but seemed to come up with nothing but more questions. That is until Scannon stepped in... and his involvement was almost accidental, the way it came about! Scannon had a friend who happened to be looking for a ship that President George Bush, Sr. sunk during his military career. In fact, it was said that this ship was Bush's "virgin kill". Scannon, simply for his interest in the history, decided to tag along on the trip but while helping look for this ship Bush took down, Scannon finds an area Palau not previously scoured for downed ships or planes. He ends up finding not one but THREE WW2 B-24 Liberator bomber planes, the kind of bomber that those missing men were last seen flying. But again, a discovery that raised more questions than answers! Were these planes all shot down by the same ground gun, perhaps hidden in the jungle brush? Scannon had to know the truth.
He begins a years long investigation, first starting with the Air Force crash reports.. which he quickly discovered were grossly disappointing in the amount of information they provided (some being just a few words long!). Scannon decides the next step is to track down any veterans still alive that might have served with these men. He not only finds some such veterans, but interviews with them uncover some shady secrets surrounding one of the planes and why it had the crew it did.
Being a history nerd, especially when it comes to history that involves unsolved mysteries, I figured this book would be right up my alley. Anyone else find it hard not to be taken in by a good aviation mystery? :-) Well, while this one had its moments, it wasn't quite was I was expecting. There are some pretty gripping passages as Hylton tries to recreate the lives and final moments of the lost men, but then at other times that intensity seems to be dampened with the author's tendency to fixate on (what I found to be) extraneous details / subhistory . I was hoping Hylton would go more in-depth with the backstories of the missing men -- home lives, educational backgrounds, aspirations, etc -- which he does touch upon some, but it wasn't enough to really bring these men back to life the way I was hoping for. Instead there are long passages on background history instead, much of it focusing on the political climate of Japan at the time, the history and operations of prison camps, even a detailed look at Kazuo Nakamura, the Commander of Criminal Section of the Kempei (Japanese military police), and his gruesome battle to keep his syphilis under control -- the details didn't make for pretty reading!
Yes, this history is important for the reader to know to better understand the world these lost men were living and working in and how that ties into the story of the crash. I just sometimes felt there was maybe a little too much focus on this aspect rather than the stories of the men. However, some of the background history I did enjoy learning was the story of how famed aviator Charles Lindbergh thoroughly looked over and tested out the Liberator plane for himself and basically deemed it a piece of crap, yet the military continued to order more and more of them to be made!
As for the lumbering B-24, Lindbergh was less enamored, "I am not overly impressed with the qualities of this bomber," he wrote. "When I flew it for a few minutes in the air, I found the controls to be the stiffest and heaviest I have ever handled. Also, I think the gun installations are inadequate and the armor plate poorly installed. I would certainly hate to be in a bomber of this type if a few pursuit planes caught up with it.
Hylton further writes:
On the morning of August 1 (1943), a formation of 177 Liberators departed from Libya, sweeping over the Mediterranean and up the western coast of Greece, past Albania and Yugoslavia, to reach the Ploesti refineries. But as the 1700 fliers approached their target, they ran into a heavier defense than anyone expected. As a hail of anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky, the B-24s shattered and dove through smoke and flak, airmen leaping to their deaths in the burning refineries below. With 660 fliers lost, it was the deadliest mission in Air Force history, known as Black Sunday. Yet the impact on the Nazi machine was neglible. According to an intelligence committee at the newly built Pentagon, the Ploesti raid accomplished "no curtailment of overall product output."
It was also a little funny to read the story about Admiral Chester Nimitz being turned down by West Point. Having grown up a Navy brat in San Diego, as a kid I saw Nimitz's name on everything from Nimitz Blvd to USS Nimitz. He's such a famed Naval figure, it was interesting to read that the Navy was actually his Plan B career lol.
As far as what I was talking about wanting to see in the personal stories of the lost men, Hylton does touch upon that in the closing chapters of the book. Chapter 14: "Fallout" stood out in particular as having the moving tone I was hoping to feel throughout the rest of the book. I was also moved by the story of Scannon contacting the grown son of one of the lost pilots, notifying him that his father's plane might have been discovered. The story goes on to talk about how the son quickly worked (through a West Texas winter, no less!) to become SCUBA certified so that he could dive down to see the plane for himself, even though he feared that he might come upon his father's remains.
I'd say that overall Vanished is a solidly entertaining read for military history buffs. I also liked that in his author's note Hylton reveals that he donates a portion of the proceeds of this book back into funding further investigations of the the Palau crash site, hopefully helping to solve the still-unanswered portions of this story that much more quickly, giving the remaining families that moment of closure they still await.