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by Susan Sheehan
Berkley Books 1986
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|A Missing Plane
The Dramatic Tragedy and Triumph of A Lost and Forgotten WWII Bomber
Flying in clouds was perilous on an island whose national slogan, according to most American pilots who had flown there was for any length of time, should have been "There's a rock in every cloud."
A Missing Plane is an essential work of nonfiction that tells the story of B-24D Liberator "Weezie" Serial Number 42-41081, and how its crew and passengers went missing in Papua New Guinea during WWII and the circumstances that lead to its discovery, identification and recovery from Mount Thumb in Papua New Guinea in 1982. The book is divided into three parts: recovery, identification and pilot.
The story begins with PNG Museum curator Bruce Hoy in the discovery of the aircraft, the US Army's CILHI (Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii) recovery team, including Richard Hudson to recover and identify the remains. The forensic anthropologist, Tadao Furue who painstakingly worked with the remains for over a year in the most difficult case in his career to positively identify all twenty-two crew members.
The last part of the book, Pilot tells the moving stories of the 22 crew and passengers aboard 42-41081. A cross section of Americans that together encompass nearly every part of the nation in their background, civilian career, military training or painfully short lives prior to the crash of their B-24.
Part I: Recovery
The first pages of the book recount the story of two Manumu villagers in the early 1980's discovered the wreckage of a "large old plane" while bird hunting deep in the mountains. At that same time in Port Moresby, Bruce Hoy an Australian and the first curator of the PNG Museum's "Aviation, Maritime and War Branch" was establishing the museum, and following a personal obsession to locate the approximately 350 MIA aircraft in PNG. Through an extraordinary set of events and coincidences, the story of the villager's discovery makes its way to Bruce Hoy who in turn informs the US Army's CILHI of this new discovery, of a crash site unknown to the outside world, and aside from the Manumu villagers, never visited by another human being since the war.
Next, the book deals with the deployment of the US Army CILHI team, and their mission to Papua New Guinea. Traveling to the crash site is no easy task, and relies on the cooperation of the villagers who discovered the plane to proceed the Army recovery team to mark the site and clear a helicopter pad for landing. The book follows the work of the small Army team in particular Richard Hudson, and their meticulous work at the site. Despite the challenge of steep terrain and the confused mass of wreckage the team begins their task - the recovery of human remains for identification. The team rigorously combs the area for any personal effects and bone fragments from passengers of the stricken bomber. Part archaeological site, part hallowed ground, one gains an appreciating for the challenges of the CILHI team.
Readers learns about the process of recovery work from an undisturbed wreck site - where wreckage, bones, and personal artifacts are strewn where the crash left them. Remains are collected and marked as to location, date time collected, each being placed in separate location bags, marked X-1 through X-19. Meticulous recovery work and documentation is essential so that the forensic identification has the greatest possibility for success. As they collect the remains of the men who could have been their fathers or grandfathers and share were also men of the United States Army.
Part II: Identification
The entire second part of the book takes place in the laboratory at CILHI located at Hickam Field on Oahu, Hawaii. There, the bags of remains are laid out on stretchers, and the reader meets Japanese forensic anthropologist Tado Furue who has the seemingly impossible task of identifying twenty-two men from very incomplete skeletal remains. Before any identification can happen, the remains must be segregated to deferent individuals. The process includes everything from comparison to military records, to precise measurements of each bone fragment to extrapolate the height and weight of each individual. All the work is done in the blind, and the reader witnesses Tado Furue's exhaustive and expert work that goes beyond professionalism to a personal obsession. After more than a year of work, all members of the crew are positively identified and the US Army accepts the findings of the recovery and identification teams. Although the MIA case of 42-41081 is now closed, the process of locating and notifying the next of kin now begins.
Part III: Pilot
The struggles of the relatives of MIAs is rarely touched in other books on the subject of Pacific aircraft. A Missing Plane is unique in this aspect of its research and story telling.
This final section of the book deals with the individual stories of the crew and passengers of of the B-24, and accounts of their relatives, widows and friends touched by the crash, and their classification as missing. Some write letter writing to the US Army in hopes of further details, Others entertain hope that they will one day be found, alive. For others, the past is too painful, and they never speak of the past while their internal struggle continues as the years pass.
The stories of women touch by this crash are particularly poignant. For those who read the book, the struggles that women like Juanita Beck widow of Robert E. Allred give us an appreciation for what it is like to be the relative of an MIA, the endless search for closure, and grief that never ends, despite the passage of time. These emotions climax when each relative learns that their loved one was found then recovered and positively identified, 38 years after their plane disappeared.
A Missing Plane it is a book that readers will never forget. Far more than just a war story it touches on the greater tragedies of war, and their lasting effects on the survivors. It is a story about amazing personalities in the present, who dedicate themselves and their work to solve the mysteries of the past. In this case, the homecoming of twenty-two of America's nearly 80,000 MIAs from WWII.
Review by Justin Taylan
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