|Final Journey Home|
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN, ABCNEWS We turn now to a poignant story, the final chapter of a tale that began during World War II, when 10 young men vanished into thin air.
JAY SCHADLER, ABCNEWS (VO) At Arlington National Cemetery, a soldiers bugle mourns the memory of 10 brave men and a 50-year-old mystery. Friends and family have gathered here to remember the crew of a B-24 bomber that left on a mission in the summer of 1944 and never came back.
OFFICIAL Gunner Vincent J. Netherwood.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) A sister is here, a brother, a widow, a son, all wearing the years on their faces. Only the lost men remain forever young. Back then, America was swinging to its own rhythm when the bombs began to fall. Life would have to wait for a little while. Among the crew, the youngest was 20-year-old gunner Vincent Netherwood. At home, he was the oldest of six children, a brother in a house full of sisters.
1ST SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD We were proud of him, especially in that uniform. I mean, I can see him today in that uniform. Wehe was handsome, and, oh, he was great.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Anthony DeLucia, the planes engineer, had dreamed of flying since he was a boy, when he built model airplanes and snuck a copy of his favorite magazine, G-8 and His Battle Aces, into bed at night with his brother, Elmer.
ELMER DELUCIA Id have to hold a flashlight under the covers so my father couldnt see the light. So he covered up under there, and he read that book for maybe an hour. Ill never forget that long as I live. That was his life.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) And Bill Drager, also a gunner, was just 26 years old when he said good-bye to his wife, Betty, and his 3-month-old son, Jim.
BETTY DRAGER He went in the room, picked Jim up, walked around with him for a while, came back out and said his good-byes to us, went down the road, and just as he went around the corner, that was it. Last time I saw him.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) It was May 1944, and Bill Drager was headed back to Langley Air Field in Virginia, where he and the rest of the crew were in training to bomb Japanese ships. Two months later, they were ordered to the Pacific. Their plane was piloted by 25-year-old George Pierpont (ph). His co-pilot was Franklin Tomenindale (ph). George Ward manned the bombardiers station. Ellsworth Kelly (ph) ran the radio. And Fred Buckley (ph) controlled the radar. Robert Kiersey (ph) was the third gunner, and Robert Demming (ph) the navigator. In early June, Bill Drager wrote home.
BETTY DRAGER June the 7th. Where we are going, China, will not be so rough, I dont think. I dont think it will last very long over here. I would sure like to be home for my boys first Christmas, but that is asking a little too much.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) On August 7, the crew arrived at their final destination and joined up with the 308 Bomb Group of the 14th Air Force in China, then our ally in the war against Japan. For the next three weeks, Pierponts crew waited for new orders. They didnt know it then, but they would never see September. (on camera) On August 30, more than a dozen B-24s were brought together at Liu Chou, a forward air base here in southern China. Almost immediately, rumors began spreading that a big bombing mission was in the works. That night, crews from the B-24s who had trained together back at Langley held what one soldiers diary described as a sort of family reunion. A couple of the boys broke out some stateside whiskey that theyd brought along for the occasion, and they spent the night swapping news and telling tales and wondering about tomorrow. But for 10 of those young men, there was only one tomorrow left. (VO) Late the next afternoon, 16 planes took off from Liu Chou, bound for the island of Taiwan. Their orders were to bomb dozens of Japanese ships docked in Takow (ph) Harbor. For Pierponts crew, this would be their first combat mission. For five hours, the squadron headed south toward the coast. Several planes back, James Miracle (ph), whod become friends with some of the men on Pierponts plane, passed the time and calmed his crew.
JAMES MIRACLE Thats when I started out on the intercom humming a little hymn, and the rest of the crew would sit there and listen. (singing) Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, da-dum, hmmm-mmm, hmmm-hmmm.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Day drifted into dusk, into night. But as they approached Takow, the harbor awoke.
JAMES MIRACLE I vividly remember when we made our turn, I was looking ahead, and Id never seen smoke (ph), so they werethey had ground fire. And some of the stuff was right on our aircraft.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Robinson McClure was the navigator on Miracles plane.
ROBINSON MCCLURE And the boys up about 4,000 or 5,000 feet were getting a lot of stuff thrown at them, and a lot of lights up there, (inaudible) a lot of antiaircraft.
JAMES MIRACLE And I saw tracer bullets and heard them go through the airplane. Bing, bing, bing, bing.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Antiaircraft fire brought one plane down, but the other bombers, including Pierponts, had made their targets and started for home.
JAMES MIRACLE Then when he leveled offOh, boy. Then he said to the crew, If you want to smoke, smoke, and everybody relaxed. But we didnt know when we got home what we were going to run into then.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Liu Chou, their home base, was now under heavy attack by the Japanese, so the returning B-24s were diverted to airfields further north. But the cloud cover was heavy, and the topographical maps poor. Several of the planes spent hours and precious fuel hunting for a place to land. Somewhere in that dark sky, a faint voice from Pierponts plane called out for a radio fix. It was the last time anyone heard from it. By the next morning, it was clear that not everyone had made it back.
JAMES MIRACLE Somebody said, Hey, there were two crews that didnt make it. Now, who were they? Well, Pierpont was one of them. Oh, my God. This is Pierponts first mission. And, of course, his only mission.
ROBINSON MCCLURE For that first week, I kept kind of hoping theyd show up, or wed hear something, you know, because theres a chance that they bailed out, theres a chance they bellied into some rice paddy somewhere. And we always had hopes that theyd make it, because some would.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) But neither the crew nor the plane were found. Back in the States, Vincent Netherwoods 7-year-old sister Elsie was sitting on her front porch in Kingston, New York, when the telegram came.
2ND SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD And all of a sudden, I heard my mother screaming and my aunt screaming and my sister screaming.
BETTY DRAGER And I saw this taxi pull up and I started shaking. I couldnt even find the thing. I knew, you know, there was something terrible when I saw that yellow envelope.
SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son, Private Vincent J. Netherwood has been reported missing ...
BETTY DRAGER ... that your husband, Staff Sergeant William Drager, has been reported missing in action since the 31st of August in the Asiatic area. If further details or other information ...
JAY SCHADLER (VO) But there would be no more details, no more information. (on camera) What was that like to live through, not knowing?
BETTY DRAGER It was very difficult. I think missing in action might have been worse than getting a killed in action, because if theyre killed in action, you start the grieving process then. With this, you always had hopes that, well, maybe he was a prisoner and hell get loose, or theyll find him or something.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Eighteen months later, the military declared the crew presumed dead. Most of the families presumed nothing. (on camera) Your mother held out hope that he was alive.
1ST SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD Yes, yes.
JAY SCHADLER Her whole life?
1ST SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD She would come up at night, and she would lie across the bottom of the bed, when she could look out the window there. And it was the corner where heif he was coming home, hes coming around that corner. And many nights, Ill just keep you company, she would say. But we knew what she was doing. She was watching for Vin to come around the corner.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Still for the Netherwoods and the nine other families life eventually moved on. Children grew up, windows remarried, and parents went to their graves never knowing. But here, along the broken cliffs and deep ravines of the tallest mountain in south China, time had found a place to hide-for 52 years, it kept its secrets to itself. Then, in the Autumn of 1996, two Chinese farmers hunting herbs made a chance discovery that swept World War II, a lost plane and the fate of its crew right back into the present. It was the wreckage of an old B-24. Among the debris were five dog tagsWard, Netherwood, Buckley, Tomenendale, Kelly. The Chinese returned them to the American government. Pierponts plane had been found, and suddenly, 1996 felt like 1944.
BETTY DRAGER It was just like it happened yesterday. All these memories come flooding back into your brain.
1ST SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD You faced the death of your brother again. It was just like facing another death.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Elmer Delucia, whose brother Anthony was nicknamed Bib&
ELMER DELUCIA It hit me. The B-24. Anthony W. Delucia, and Jeez, I justI was shaking like a leaf. I was walking up towards our home, and a car pulled up. My wife, she says, Whats wrong with you? I couldnt open the door. She said, Is your brother sick? and I got in the car, and she says, My God, would you please tell me what happened to you? I broke right down, and I says, They found Bibs airplane.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) But the Chinese had found more than just a plane. There were bones here, too, remains to be brought home. (interviewing) The discovery of the plane took place on your mothers birthday.
2ND SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD Yeah. Elsie said her hand up in heaven was guiding them to that plane to find my brother on her birthday.
3RD SISTER OF VINCENT NETHERWOOD And knowing mom always wanted this. She always wanted to bring her son back to be buried. Her spirit was out there. Waiting to find him, and she did.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Yet for Bill Dragers son, Jim, who was just six months old when his dad disappeared, the planes discovery held a very different meaningand responsibility. He is part of a younger generation who only knew his father through photos, stories and letters. They, like the bones in China, are fragments of a lost life. But they still hold the power to move the living. When Jim heard that the plane had been found, he pulled out the crews photo and decided he would go to China to stand where his dad had fallen.
JIM DRAGER That picture has haunted me since I was a boy. Dont ask me why. And when I pulled it out that night, you know, it was just like all those guys were looking at me, and I just said, OK, you know, Im going. Not just because my fathers in that crew, but because there were 10 guys on that crew and for 50-something years, theyve laid on that mountain. Lets go bring them home.
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN Jim Drager had only known his father through those old photographs and the memories of others. As we will see when we return, he will finally learn something firsthand about the man who had loved him long before he was old enough to know what that meant.
ANNOUNCER A sons daring mission down a steep, jagged mountain. What secrets lay hidden there? Can he bring his father home? Jay Schadler will have more, when 20/20 continues.
ANNOUNCER A journey to the vanishing point of 10 young flyers a half century ago. What will they find? Will it bring this son peace?
JIM DRAGER Just one piece of bone. Thats all I need. Like I said, then Ill be 99 percent there. Dog tags would put me at 100 percent.
ANNOUNCER The search for lost heroes, when 20/20 continues after this from our ABC stations. (Station Break)
ANNOUNCER 20/20 continues. And now, Chris Wallace.
CHRIS WALLACE We continue now with our story of the mission to bring home 10 young American fliers a half century after they crashed in China.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) We have traveled halfway around the world with Jim Drager, whose fathers plane disappeared while returning from a bombing mission in the summer of 1944. He has traveled here to come close to the dad he never knew, to pay homage to him and his crew by visiting the place where their lives so violently came to an end, on the face of south Chinas tallest peak, Maur (ph) Mountain.
JIM DRAGER You know, I wonder what his voice sounded like. Drives me crazy! Like the pictures of those guys, the crewdid the pilot have a high, squeaky voice or was he(growls) I dont know. I have no idea. One night of having a beer with these guys would be the best thing that I could do!
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Not far from the mountain, Jim visited a museum which houses various pieces from the crash site removed by the Chinese. In here, rusted pistols ...
JIM DRAGER Still cocked.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) ... still fire the imagination.
JIM DRAGER Thank you.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) And 50-caliber machine guns, the ones his dad used, still seem warm with his fathers hands. (on camera) Take a lift of one of those guns.
JIM DRAGER Holy cow! My God! One of these was his gun. Had to be. And he had two.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) But for Jim there is still something missing. (on camera) Your dads dogtag ...
JIM DRAGER Was not ...
JAY SCHADLER ... was not among the ones ...
JIM DRAGER Was not one of the five that were found. On the other hand, they had said before maybe somebody bailed out. I dont think so. But it wouldit would settle me to no end to go home with those dogtags or something that says, Yup, he was in this plane with the rest of them when it went down.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Of course, for the chance to find that kind of proof, Jim will have to trek to the crash site itself, and so will we. Near the top of Maur Mountain, we met up with a team from the United States militarys Central Identification Laboratory, known as CILHI (ph). Their mission, whenever and wherever possible, is to recover and identify and eventually return the remains of American soldiers killed overseas to their families back home. Johnny Webb (ph) is the labs deputy commander. (on camera) Why is it important to do this?
JOHNNY WEBB These are people that gave their lives for this country, and they deserve, if at all possible, to be brought back home and placed in their homeland that they gave their life for.
JAY SCHADLER No matter where they are.
JOHNNY WEBB No matter where they are.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Unfortunately, the wreckage of Dragers plane is perched precariously on five narrow ledges beneath Maur Mountains 7,000-foot summit. The team from CILHI offered to guide us down to the crash site, providing us with harnesses ...
CILHI TEAM MEMBER See the red?
JAY SCHADLER Yeah.
CILHI TEAM MEMBER You see red, its wrong.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) ... and instructions.
CILHI TEAM MEMBER As were going down, if you slip, pull back with your rapel hand andor your brake hand and ...
JAY SCHADLER (VO) But no guarantees of safety. (on camera) Are we rapelling at all? Are we doing some of that?
CILHI TEAM MEMBER We do to get down.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) The trail begins with a rough descent through dense forest, quickly turning into a series of steep drops.
CILHI TEAM MEMBER Dont use your right hands. Let the rope run free. Hes controlling the rope.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) By alternately using makeshift ladders and rapelling ...
CILHI TEAM MEMBER Man on the rope!
CILHI TEAM MEMBER Got him!
JAY SCHADLER ... we pick our way down the peaks eastern face. Finally, after two hours of descent, the first wreckage. (on camera) Stop here a second.
JIM DRAGER Jesus Christ!
JAY SCHADLER There she is, Jim.
JIM DRAGER Yup. Its here.
JAY SCHADLER Tell me. Tell what youre thinking.
JIM DRAGER Im Thinking they almost made it.
JAY SCHADLER Yeah.
JIM DRAGER Five hundred feet, and they would have been over the top, so I dont know whether they couldnt stay high or they thought they were high enough.
JAY SCHADLER They slammed right into this face, didnt they?
JIM DRAGER Yeah, they slammed into the face, and it all cameand because it was rock here on these ledges, it allnobody lived through this. Son of a bitch. Look at that.
JAY SCHADLER Thats a boot, isnt it?
JIM DRAGER Piece of boot. Somebody was in this mess.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Why the plane slammed into this mountain 55 years ago may never be known. Had it run out of fuel or was the bomber damaged by enemy fire? Perhaps it was a pilot error or poor maps. Whatever the reason, the men must have been killed instantly. Before leaving the crash site, Jim leaves a memorial of his own making, a small plaque honoring his dad and his crew.
JIM DRAGER It says, On August 31st, 1944, World War II, a United States Air Force B-24J bomber, complete with her 10-man crew, crashed on this mountain site. This plaque is placed in their memory by the families of those brave airmen.
CHRIS WALLACE Jim Drager headed home, but on that steep, isolated mountainside, the mission to find his father had just begun. Jay Schadler continues his story in a moment.
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN The fate of nearly 80,000 US soldiers who fought in World War II is still not known. In China alone, about 100 B-24 bombers like the one weve been talking about tonight disappeared without a trace. Theres no way that all of them will ever be found, so many families will never know what happened to their loved ones.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) For several weeks, the team from the militarys Central Identification Laboratory has been working on the eastern face of Maur Mountain. Their job is to recover as many remains as possible of the 10 men who died here so that they can be identified and returned to their families back home. In charge of the team is anthropologist Dave Rankin (ph).
DAVE RANKIN We tend to see highly fragmented remains, but they are piecesthey tend to be pieces that are large enough to be recognizable, and a lot of times you can put pieces together.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Like archaeologists, Rankin and his team carefully peel away layers of wreckage. Every bucket of dirt is sifted and screened. The work is slow and methodical. Hours, days can pass before discovering anything of value. But when they do ...
CILHI TEAM MEMBER Yeah, definitely!
CILHI TEAM MEMBER Thats vertebrae. Its coming apart.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Its not just a piece of history, its a fragment of a man.
DAVE RANKIN These individuals cannot speak for themselves anymore, and youre able to tell the story a little better and find out exactly what happened and who is it.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Despite two trips to the mountain already, Rankins team has only been able to excavate a little more than half of the crash site. Still, theyve found more than 200 pieces of bone, which now rest on a pair of tables at the labs headquarters in Hawaii. (on camera) This lab is a way station between the crews violent death in China and their final burial back in the States. Its a place where cutting-edge science and shards of memory are used to reconstruct the past. The smallest bone fragment or the tiniest piece of physical evidence can be used to make an identification, but the process is painfully slow. And the truth is, after all the hard work, there is simply no guarantee that all 10 men will be identified. (VO) The wreckage has yielded scores of personal effects, including knives, compasses, coins and a pair of glasses that look a lot like those worn by crewman Fred Buckley. Two more dogtags are also here, Kearsey and Delucia. But the focus is on the human remains.
DAVE RANKIN Weve got pieces that are smaller than a dime, badly burned. Weve got burned teeth that cracked, and the crown comes off, and the root comes off.
JAY SCHADLER (on camera) Wow.
DAVE RANKIN So weve recovered very small pieces, although we have two pieces maybe about this big.
TOM HOLLAND (PH) Every one of these people out here was awas a brother and a father and a son and ...
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Tom Holland is the director of the lab.
TOM HOLLAND ... a husband. And you know, Im all those things, and the people who work here are all those things. And I think thats whythats why we do this. I think its the debt thatthat each generation owes to the one before it.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) In paying that debt, the lab gives a priceless gift to the living relatives. Elmer Delucia, for instance, the brother of crewman Anthony Delucia, will be able to keep a promise he made to his mother more than 30 years ago.
ELMER DELUCIA It was her wish, before she died, If Anthonys ever found, would you please bury something, anything, anything, a finger, a bone, that we can go down the aisle in church, have a nice funeral mass. Thats what we really want. Thats the only thing I want.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) For Elmer, it appears that will happen. Because the bones were so shattered and mixed up at the crash site, scientists have had to rely largely on DNA matching to identify the remains. Earlier this year, the militarys DNA lab in Maryland was able to match bones to seven members of the crew, including Anthony Delucia. But there is still more work to be done.
TOM HOLLAND I dont know were going to be able to get all 10 individuals, but I feel confident were going to be able to get 7, 8, 9, if we dont get all 10.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Between dogtags and bones matched by DNA, the lab now has some piece of physical evidence for 9 of the 10 crewmen. But still missing is any evidence to account for Jim Dragers dad. (on camera) What if all of this comes through, and theres not an identification of Bill Drager?
JIM DRAGER We dont want to talk about that! Thatll bother me.
JAY SCHADLER Youre still, at this point, extremely hopeful that ...
JIM DRAGER Yeah, just one piece ...
JAY SCHADLER ... some remains will be found.
JIM DRAGER ... of bone. Thats all I need. You know, like I said, then itll be 99 percent there. Dogtagsd put me at 100.
JAY SCHADLER (VO) The military, however, is not giving up. Dave Rankin plans to make one more trip to the crash site and says his primary goal is to find some evidence of Jims father.
MEMORIAL SERVICE OFFICIAL The pilot of the crew, George H. Pierpont...
JAY SCHADLER (VO) Until then, all the families will have to wait for remains to be returned. Even then, they may only get a few pieces of bone. But for the families, that will be enough to give their souls some peace. Rosemary Netherwood (ph) will be waiting for her brother, Vincent. Several times a week, she visits the local cemetery where her parents are buried. Years ago, her mother insisted on placing Vincents name on the headstone, praying that some day his remains could be here, too. In 1944, 10 men went to war and disappeared. They left a hole where their lives should have been. It will never be filled, but soon the circle, at least, may be closed.
ROSEMARY NETHERWOOD Dad, Mom, hell be here soon, I hope! Bless you. I love you.
CHRIS WALLACE What a story!
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN Oh, and Chris, you know, the Central Identification Laboratorys going to return to China in the next couple of weeks for a final search of the area.
CHRIS WALLACE You know, the word closure is so overused these days, but you could really understand it in that story because for 50 years, these families did not have that sense of closure. And I was struck byby the relative of one of the dead fliers who said Almost better to hear killed in action than missing in action because then at least youd know.
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN Well, you know, the whole era is so full of this emotion. My father was shot down over Germany during the war and spent two years in a prisoner of war camp. And I have to say, this piece really hit me hard.
CHRIS WALLACE Quite a drama for all these families.
U M M A R Y
A B-24 bomber with a crew of 10 men that vanished in WWII was found more than 50 years later in south China.