Six decades and half a world away
During World War II, more than 2,000 American pilots and crew members were lost over Papua New Guinea. Now a Pentagon team is trying to bring them home.
First in a series
RABAUL, Papua New Guinea - Army Major George Eyster didn't know - couldn't know - the two young men whose fighter planes disappeared into the jungle 64 years ago. But Eyster, a 32-year-old combat veteran of the Iraq war, feels like he does.
Gazing down over a sparkling harbor toward the caves where Japanese forces once hid from relentless American bombing, he thinks about the costs of war, then and now.
Eyster flew a helicopter gunship in Iraq, hovering only 50 feet above the charred battlegrounds of the Sunni Triangle and trying to take out enemy insurgents before they could kill American troops. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he didn't.
Now, as a rumbling volcano spews ash in the distance, he stands on the killing fields of another war, where an earlier generation of young Americans sat in the terrifying loneliness of their cockpits, trying to take out enemy fighters defending the main Japanese base in the South Pacific.
Eyster, who traded in his military uniform for a polo shirt emblazoned with the signature black and white POW/MIA flag, came to Papua New Guinea to lead a group of soldiers - most of them Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - to try to find the remains of two World War II fliers who were just 19 and 25 when they were lost in 1944.
The expedition is part of the Pentagon's ambitious new initiative to locate tens of thousands of MIAs from World War II, many lost for decades in terrain that was considered unreachable, masked by unforgiving jungles or closed off by hostile regimes.
Armed with new technologies that can extract DNA from mere shards of tooth or bone, the searchers are trying to bring closure to a war that is starting to recede from living memory. For Eyster, the feeling of connection is palpable: The two men his team is endeavoring to find - Marion R. McCown and Allan S. Harrison III - might as well be the pilots he led into battle in Iraq.
"I think to myself, I have been in command of 18- and 19-year-old men - and women, in fact - flying helicopters across Iraq," Eyster says. "One of our aircraft was shot down over Baqubah, and we lost the two pilots in there."
Both of the World War II pilots, McCown and Harrison, now belong to military history. Neither has any known descendants. No one is waiting at home for the recovery of their remains. Eyster and his fellow soldiers are undertaking this mission for the pilots - and for themselves.
"In our own minds we are doing what we would want to be done for ourselves," Eyster says. "I have seen guys break their backs for the idea that we are going to bring this little shred of evidence back home because he is a comrade-in-arms, he is a buddy."
To undertake the search, Eyster has brought a hand-picked team of 30 active-duty soldiers. They will be joined by as many as 50 natives of Papua New Guinea, schooled in local lore and familiar with a terrain that is among the most difficult in the world. The recovery team includes forensic anthropologists, bomb experts, and medics, among many other specialists.
Eyster knows it won't be easy. Researchers, guided by local surveyors, have spotted the wrecks of the pilots' planes. But finding the aircraft is just the start. Wounded pilots could have ventured beyond the crash site, and any remains would be subject to all manner of natural and man-made degradation, from insects to bandits.
The team would be happy to find even the smallest piece of tooth or bone - anything that can solve the mystery of what happened to the two pilots.
The military has been keeping track of soldiers missing in combat since the Mexican War, the first fought mainly outside the United States. Pressed by demands from soldiers' families, Congress passed a law in 1846 directing the secretary of war to provide the full names and hometowns of soldiers missing from battles in Mexico.
In the wars that followed, the military always tried to recover its dead but was bound by the limits of technology. The Navy, unable to retrieve bodies from the ocean, adhered to the ancient tradition of burial at sea.
Only after the Vietnam War - when transportation and communication were far easier - did the Pentagon begin a concerted effort to locate missing soldiers, spurred by the demands of veterans' groups who believed that some MIAs were still alive.
Those efforts - including the establishment of the Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu in 1976 and a special task force to recover remains in 1992 - led to the identification of 889 of the estimated 1,800 service members missing from the Vietnam War.
But the vast majority of soldiers still listed as MIA - 78,000 of the estimated 88,000 - were lost on the far-flung battlefields of World War II. In the South Pacific alone the Pentagon currently tracks 20,782 missing service members, according to records.
Officials estimate that just under half of all the World War II MIAs are recoverable. That estimate has led families to press the government to do more to try to locate their loved ones. Some of those families have established advocacy groups and lobbied Congress.
"They had been focused almost entirely on Vietnam," says Lisa Phillips of Portland, Maine, who started a group called World War II Families for the Recovery of the Missing. "There were a lot of World War II families who didn't know who to talk to or where to turn to find answers. Now we are getting a larger voice."
In 2003, the Pentagon expanded the number of full-time personnel dedicated to the recovery effort to more than 400. It also combined the laboratory and recovery operations into a single command, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is now run by an admiral and has an annual budget of $54 million.
The intensified focus on World War II has paid dividends: 437 veterans of that war have been identified in recent years.
And the scope of the search continues to expand. This fall, a recovery team will travel to northern India, part of the infamous China-Burma-India air corridor over the Himalayas, where an estimated 1,365 American fliers were lost in icy, treacherous winds.
But even that carnage is dwarfed by the number of World War II pilots and crew members who disappeared in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
As Eyster and his team make their way through the densely forested island, natives emerge to tell of American fliers who crashed near their villages.
An old woman explains how she witnessed the crash of an American bomber long ago. A middle-aged man brings a pickup truck full of bones and aircraft parts. A young hotel clerk gives the team another pile of wreckage, including a metal plate stamped "American Bosch Corp., Springfield, Massachusetts."
And often Eyster himself stumbles upon the most vivid signs of the momentous events of nearly seven decades ago: the crash sites themselves.
"We come across a wreck a day," Eyster says, in awe. "They are all over the place here."
The largest group of islands in the vast archipelago stretching from Southeast Asia to Australia, Papua New Guinea has some of the thickest rainforests in the world, home to ancient tribes whose members speak more than 800 languages.
The fertile valleys in the highlands were largely unknown to the outside world until the 1930s, and the main island of New Guinea - whose western half is part of Indonesia - remains so unexplored that new plants and animals were discovered as recently as 2006.
Several corners of the island nation were colonized by Europeans in the 1800s, but it was still disconnected from the modern world when Japan invaded in January 1942, a month after attacking Pearl Harbor. Japan quickly established military bases across the archipelago as part of its strategy to cut off Australia and move east toward New Zealand and eventually Hawaii and North America.
Rabaul, on New Britain Island, was known as the "Pearl of the Pacific" for its deep natural port and was the focal point of Allied strategy in the Pacific, according to an official 1947 Marine Corps history.
For nearly three years American fighters and bombers taking off from aircraft carriers and hastily constructed air bases on nearby islands penetrated the dense clouds and steered around treacherous mountain peaks to pummel the Japanese forces there.
The cost of that strategy was extremely high. Between 1942 and 1945, at least 2,228 American pilots and crew members were lost over Papua New Guinea.
If they were lucky enough to survive a crash, death was almost certain at the hands of their Japanese captors or in the disease-ridden jungle. Natives spirited away many of their belongings, some of which they regarded as religious talismans. Many of the missing were either buried in unmarked graves by locals, came to rest at the bottom of thick bogs, or were carried off by animals.
Until recent years, the island interiors have been unreachable to outsiders except for missionaries and adventurers. But an exploration boom in the 1990s to mine gold and other minerals, harvest lumber, and drill for natural gas has made the terrain more accessible.
Twenty-two years ago, when the Pentagon first heard from a local surveyor that a piece of a World War II fighter plane with a tail number matching that of Allan Harrison's plane had been spotted in the jungle on New Britain Island, there was no dedicated search team to find the wreckage.
McCown's plane, which crashed near a village, had been spotted by islanders in the years immediately after the war. But in 1991, when Army researchers visited the site, they didn't find sufficient remains to identify with DNA.
But with the new emphasis on finding MIAs, and the confidence that DNA could be extracted from ever-smaller remains, both sites were among a dozen targeted for investigation in 2006.
The McCown site, with its nearly intact Corsair F4U-1 - one of the iconic fighters of the war - was the first target for Eyster's forensic team.
"We're digging as if it has never been dug," says Captain Bo Bergstrom, the 27-year-old Marine overseeing the search, as he prepares to begin his work.
Marion McCown's mission was to escort B-25 bombers from the Solomon Islands to Rabaul, where they would try to destroy a key Japanese installation.
His day began with a briefing in his squadron's "ready room," a hut carved out of a coconut tree. It was Thursday, Jan. 20, 1944.
He had had a busy week. A few days earlier engine trouble had forced him to ditch his plane in the ocean 47 miles from the airstrip. He "was later picked up by a PT boat," according to a Navy report. But he was back in the air almost immediately.
Almost as soon as the bomber escorts began that day's 216-mile journey to Rabaul, they ran into a far larger Japanese force.
McCown was at 4,000 feet "when the formation was attacked by approximately 40 enemy," according to the squadron's daily action report. A fellow pilot reported "a Zeke on Captain McCown's tail" before his plane disappeared.
The remnants of McCown's plane rest on a steep slope near the village of Vunaukaur, a collection of thatch-roofed bamboo dwellings that house six families.
The plane's cockpit section, faded but still the telltale blue of a Corsair, is almost fully intact. Underneath, vines grow through the plane's engine, a bent propeller still attached to it. Strewn about is some of the landing gear, while one of the wings, sheered off at its root, lies on the jungle floor.
When Eyster's recovery team reaches the site, they clear the area around the plane. Then a specialist scans outward from the wreckage with a metal detector, searching for buried debris. There are immediate beeps, indicating that metal is in the ground.
When the beeps end, some of the soldiers tie pieces of blue tape on tree branches to mark the rough boundaries of the debris field. Then they place blue flags at each spot where metal is detected, while others grab machetes and start hacking away at the undergrowth.
Meanwhile, Bergstrom directs dozens of local people - paid 15 kina a day, or about $5 - to help prepare the site. They set up a tarp-covered workstation down a hill from the wreckage, beside a muddy stream. They carve a set of makeshift stairs from the top of the steep incline down to the riverbank and shore it up with sandbags and rope. Then they fashion a line of rope from the crash site to the workstation to transport freshly dug earth in buckets.
Within two days of the team's arrival, its members are ready to dig. But before they can start, a local man appears on the scene, insisting that he is the rightful landowner and must be paid. Eyster has already negotiated a price with the man's brother, but he knows enough not to get in the middle of a family squabble.
He orders the team off the site, banking on the likelihood that the brothers will work out their differences rather than lose the money entirely.
Eyster's tactic works, and the team is back the next day. To ensure future cooperation, Eyster drives the village children several miles to school in his
'Nice and slow, we don't want to get anybody hurt," Army Sergeant First Class Jimmy "Big Papi" Bonilla, 36, instructs half a dozen soldiers and barefooted local workers as they prepare to flip over the rusted fuselage of McCown's plane. "Watch the sharp edges. You don't want to get cut."
The plane is being moved so that the team can look for signs of the pilot in the earth beneath it. After flipping it over, soldiers begin to dig. Each shovelful of dirt gets dumped into a bucket that the local workers carefully hook onto the rope line and send whizzing down to the workstation.
At the bottom, the buckets are retrieved by more local workers, who hand them over to the Americans and islanders who begin sifting the dirt through boxlike wooden screens. Wearing gloves to protect against the tetanus-infected soil, they remove anything that does not belong in the local habitat.
The site anthropologist, Owen Luck O'Leary, explains that whenever a nearby water source is available, recovery teams use it to help wash off any materials covered by dirt or grime. The water is pumped from the river by electric generators and sprayed over the screens, the runoff carried down a tarp-lined trench.
Despite the clamor of gushing water, shouts for more buckets, and the banging out of screen after screen, it is a highly organized undertaking.
"Anything in the screen that is not naturally of the forest is pulled out - metal, plastic, glass, bone, teeth," says O'Leary, a tall and sinewy former surfer, drenched in a sweaty T-shirt and worn baseball cap turned backward. "Including a candy wrapper from yesterday or a cigarette butt."
To help pass the time, the American crew, most of them in their 20s, blare rock music on their iPods.
Nearby, the oldest member of the crew - 42-year-old Rex Hodges - examines artifacts he's found over the past days that seem to indicate that McCown did not bail out before the crash, including a pistol grip and a buckle.
"We know he's in there," Hodges says, pointing toward the ground.
A bear of a man with long gray hair and a goatee, Hodges stayed on as a civilian investigator after he retired as an Air Force master sergeant last year.
"It's just one of the most rewarding jobs you can do," he says. "You actually feel like you are giving something back."
After only a few hours of digging, the screeners find bone fragments that O'Leary dries in the sun before sealing them in evidence bags. Like a miner who strikes gold, Hodges says with a smile that in his 25 MIA recovery missions he has never found bone on the first day.
By the end of the first week, O'Leary's team finds many more remains. Among the discoveries: a jawbone with four teeth still attached.
The teeth could be crucial to identification, if relatives can't be located to provide DNA.
Several miles away, however, where another team is searching for the remains of Harrison, the grueling days go by with no sign of the 19-year-old from Houston.
Bryan Bender, Kevin Baron, and Yoon S. Byun spent a week in Papua New Guinea with Major George Eyster and his recovery team as they searched for two missing pilots last month. Bender also reported from the team's headquarters in Honolulu. Bender can be reached at email@example.com, Baron at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Byun at email@example.com
TOMORROW: Inside the search for Lieutenant Harrison