Vanished, part II: The end for the Arnett airmen

For part 1 of my “Vanished” review, click here.

***

In the last “Vanished” post, the remarkable World War II book by Wil S. Hylton, I wrote that two things in particular would gnaw at me until they were resolved: What happened to Jimmie Doyle (and how that affected his son Tommy) and what’s driving Pat Scannon to continue on with this search mission, through all these years and all these hurdles.

The actual history at hand was a distant third interest to me, even though it was meticulously reported and genuinely interesting.

All that held true through the end of the book, but I do have to amend the third point a bit. As Hylton dug into the fighting more and fleshed out the failed mission, I became more riveted in the events themselves that took place and, for a moment, less hitched to the two nagging questions mentioned above.

Specifically, an inside view of the Japanese kempei and the mass grave on Police Hill, where the kempei buried the Americans they execute, was captivating in an unsettling (more so than thrilling) sense.

According to war documents, three American airmen who bailed out on the B-24 over Koror were imprisoned by the Japanese. Art Schumacher, Alexander Vick and Johnny Moore were held for days and interrogated before Aritsune Miyazaki, the kempei’s leader, received orders to execute them. The men were put on a truck and driven out to the Japanese jungle camp, where an execution team awaited and took them out to the jungle, into the darkness up on Police Hill.

Three holes had been dug and Miyazaki called for the first American, Schumacher, to be brought forward, where he was ordered to kneel in front of his grave before being shot in the back of the neck.

The next American (accounts couldn’t clarify if it was Vick or Moore) was delivered before his grave, and after a long slash of a Japanese sword through the back of his neck, he toppled headless into the ditch.

The third American received both treatments: a failed beheading – the coward who swung the sword eased up and couldn’t drive it all the way through – before being shot in the back of the head. The graves were filled with dirt, and Police Hill’s tally expanded.

It’s a gruesome, chilling account and one of the few moments in Hylton’s book where I felt entrenched in the ugliness of the South Pacific rather than the family narratives at play. It was one of the only times I felt like this was a war book, not a story about a single character searching for the missing piece of their own life.

Of course, it was the latter that drove me through the book, and that never changed. From the beginning to the end, it was always Tommy Doyle’s relationship with his father and Scannon’s own motives that kept me turning pages.

When the Arnett plane was found, an update was posted online that Nancy and Tommy Doyle read from home in West Texas. Nancy called Scannon to confirm, but he couldn’t. That was against strict military orders. According to policy, only the military could verify the plane and then notify families. Scannon, if he wanted the military’s continued cooperation, had to respect that.

“I can’t tell you it’s Jimmie’s plane,” Scannon told the Doyles. “Here’s what I can tell you: It’s a four-engine bomber, it’s in the water and it’s near Koror. The only four-engine bomber that flew over there was the B-24, and there were only three that went down near Koror. We’ve found the other two. So you have to decide for yourselves.”

A few months later, Tommy Doyle had received his diving certification and he and Nancy were sitting on a boat in Palau with Scannon, Jimmie’s plane in the water below. Tommy splashed into the water and headed for the ocean floor, accompanied by another diver.

When he reached the plane, the other diver, Joe Maldangesang, backed off to give him some space. Tommy touched the plane and swam around to examine different parts of it. He stuck his head inside for a closer look at where the airmen positioned themselves. Emotion rushed through him. On the other side of the world, on the ocean floor of the islands of Palau, some 60 years later, Tommy finally felt close to his father.

The excavation crew would locate a ‘DOYLE’ dog tag later, along with human bones and boots and parachute material and other artifacts, finally putting to rest a complicated family theory that involved Tommy’s father abandoning him for a new life after returning from war. When Tommy visited with other families and asked them about their experiences, he found others had similar theories.

He never really understood why this theory existed or where it started or how it carried on for all those decades, but that small piece of the mystery that would forever remain unresolved seemed insignificant now. Tommy didn’t much care about the reasoning behind a fake tale. He was able to make peace with a hole in his soul that had haunted him. That would be more than enough.

As for Scannon, I can only speculate about what personal void truly drove him to do all of this, but it’s probably accurate to say the history and thrill of mystery sucked him in and the people and their family stories kept him there.

Hylton mentions in the Acknowledgments that Scannon told him he would someday see this as something much bigger than Scannon’s own story. That became abundantly clear even for the reader, someone who didn’t invest the emotion and effort required to produce this book.

Seeing this search through was Scannon’s own way of serving his country, the kind of calling and tedious work that couldn’t be accomplished unless you were blessed with Scannon’s research expertise and singularly obsessed mind. I can’t imagine many people possess the combination of both that digging up the Arnett plane required.

I figured after the search was complete, Scannon would salute the men he helped find and head back home to his previous life, but that wasn’t the case. He had already moved onto the next mission.

The book ends with Scannon and a team of people trudging through mud in the island jungle, retracing the maps of the Japanese kempei and locating their battle camps. They found the foxholes the Japanese hid in to fire at American planes, and now Scannon felt pulled to continue the search for Police Hill and the mass grave of countless other Americans who never made it home from World War II.

Why he’s doing this, I don’t really know. I don’t know if he’s, like Tommy Doyle, searching for something in himself that he’s never been able to find, a sense of familial gratitude or patriotic servitude or something. Maybe, like the reason behind the Jimmie Doyle conspiracy theory, that’s not something for us to know.

The only thing that’s clear about Pat Scannon as “Vanished” comes to a close is this: If he commits to finding the graves of the unknown number of Americans who trudged to their death up Police Hill, to honor them like the Arnett airmen and close family narratives like that of the Doyles, you believe that he will.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com

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7 Responses to Vanished, part II: The end for the Arnett airmen

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