On a warm spring morning in 2008, a rumpled archaeologist named Eric Emery stood at the edge of a massive barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and glared down into the water.
All around him, the barge was a hive of activity. Two dozen young men scurried about the deck, preparing for the day’s events. At one end, a small group huddled by a contraption made of two-by-fours, tugging at its joints and examining its design. At the other end, a long steel ramp descended to the water, with a speedboat parked at the bottom and a cluster of scuba divers on board. The rest of the barge was mostly filled with cargo-shipping containers, each one placed just far enough from the others to divide the deck into a series of hallways and rooms. One of the rooms was set up as a medical station, with an examination table in the middle and a stretcher propped against the wall. Another was arranged like a dive locker, with masks and fins and wetsuits hanging from a taut line. A third room functioned as a communications hub, with blinking machinery and streams of wire that converged on a small wooden desk, where a young man fiddled with the knobs of a yellow plastic box. The air all around was dank and heavy with morning rain and the sky was a gray camouflage of clouds and the tips of small islands peeked through a swarthy mist on the horizon, but standing at the edge of the barge Emery seemed oblivious to it all—the mist, the noise, the men, the islands—glaring down into the water as if daring it to a duel.
Even at a glance, it was obvious that Emery was unlike the other men on board. They were young and fit and clean-shaven, with tattoos of mermaids and dragons that snaked across long sinews of muscle. Emery was a dozen years older, stocky and grizzled, with deep lines etched around his eyes, his beard at least a week grown in, his hair an unruly explosion of wire, and his faded khaki T-shirt matted to his chest by a combination of rain and sweat. He smiled little and spoke less. From time to time, one of the other men would pause for a moment to study him, as if noticing their leader for the first time. Later, when they thought back on Emery, they would marvel at how little they knew him, how little he said or gave away, even at the end.
Most of the men also knew little about one another. Many had never met before and would never meet again. They had been pulled together from all four corners of the fighting forces—soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—with each man chosen for his individual talent. There were deep-sea divers trained by the Navy’s experimental school in Florida to endure underwater pressure so extreme that the depths were considered secret. There were bomb defusers just back from Iraq with tired eyes and easy smiles and the latest operational intelligence on IED design. There were Air Force historians trained to identify, from the smallest fragment of metal or plastic, the make and model of any US aircraft built since 1941. There were forensic scientists who could do the same with bones, studying a single sliver or shard to determine where it belonged in a human body, and the age of the body to which it belonged, and sometimes even the gender or ethnicity. There was a physician on board who specialized in the mystical healing properties of superoxygenated fields. There were fishermen equipped with massive spears to haul parrot fish and unicorn fish from the depths and grill them over an open flame on deck. Together, they would spend six weeks on the barge, and then they would disperse again: to the desert, to the jungle, to the rain forests of New Guinea or the airless peaks of the Himalayas. But here, now, in the deep cerulean nowhere of the Pacific Ocean, on a tiny archipelago more than a thousand miles from the mainland, they had come together for a single purpose: to bring up what they found below.
Of course, no one knew just what that was. That was the question; that was the mission. The coordinates of the barge had been guarded for years by the American and island governments. Only a few divers had ever been down, and those who had weren’t sure what they’d seen. Or rather, they knew what they had seen, but they couldn’t imagine what they hadn’t. There were secrets still buried in the sand below, mysteries they had come to uncover. But the islands had a way of keeping their secrets. Sometimes they seemed to keep time itself.
On a clear day the islands appeared to sprinkle the water like a thousand emeralds on a plate of blue glass, each one glittering and distinct in the brilliant tropical sun, but from the sky you could see that it was an illusion: the islands were not islands at all. Beneath the surface, they were all fused together into a single underwater mesa, which rose ten thousand feet from the seafloor and leveled off just below the waterline. What seemed to be, from ship or shore, hundreds of individual islands were really just the slight hills and rises on the mesa top, bumps that rose a fraction too high and breached the open air, basking in the equatorial heat and decorating themselves with vines and flowers and carnivorous plants. In between those islands, the water remained shallow over the mesa, a pale blue expanse that shimmered like a ghost against the black ocean all around. The shallow water was warm, too, and brimming with ocean life—six-foot clams and sea snakes, octopodes and sharks, all taking refuge from the surrounding depths.
The people of the islands had also come for refuge. Anthropologists believed they were a mixture of races drawn from a thousand miles all around, lost sailors and adventurers, prospectors and rogues, converging over centuries on the coral shores to form a people in the jungle. The people did not have a creation story; they had many. One told of a girl who ate too much and grew enormous and toppled over in the water, the curves of her shoulders and breasts and knees forming the various islands. Another told of a young woman who offered food to the gods when they were hungry and was immortalized in death as the largest island, with her children arrayed around her. Many of the island myths featured women; women held special power on the islands. Women elected the tribal chiefs. Women controlled the tribal land. There were many princesses on the islands, each with a special necklace made of shells.
The anthropologist Emery knew the islands. He knew their history, their waters, their traditions, their stories. He had studied the islands with the singular zeal of a man who needs to understand. He had traveled to the southern end of the archipelago, across turbulent water in a small boat, to seek out the island of Peleliu (pella'-loo), still littered with the wreckage of war, with tanks and trucks racked on their sides from the aerial bomb blasts of World War II and the skeletons of Japanese soldiers lingering at the mouths of caves before a roiling cacophony of bats within. Emery had tasted the island delicacy of bat soup, a whole dead animal floating in broth, and he had made a pilgrimage to the marine lake at the center of another island, where a special breed of jellyfish evolved without stingers. He had stripped off his shirt at the edge of the water to dive in, his body suspended in a haze of gelatinous yellow orbs, a strange euphoria washing over him as vivid as a fever dream. He had studied the islands’ colonial history, stories of mineral exploitation and plunder, and he knew in some private place that what he needed from the islands was more precious than any stone. What he needed, he could not find anywhere else. What he needed, no one else could find.
Eric Emery’s journey to the islands marked the end of a personal quest. It was a journey that began a decade earlier, ten thousand miles away, on a small helicopter crossing an alpine lake in the treeless páramo of the Andes, with a terrifying shriek as the chopper fell from the sky, its blades colliding with the water, his lungs filling as his mind went dark. Or maybe it began even before that, at the old gas station on Lake Champlain, filling up scuba tanks with his father and casting off in the ragged sailboat, the one rule etched forever in his mind: Never stop breathing. It was a rule that Emery had only broken once, and had been trying to mend ever since. In a sense, he had spent his whole life preparing for this mission. In another sense, he’d already died for it.
In that, he knew he was not alone. All across the American landscape, men and women were waiting for him to return from the islands with answers. Some had been waiting all their lives; some felt they were waiting for their lives to begin. When Emery stood on the barge in the din and clatter of men at work, in the warm, wet air, under the scent of the shallow sea, he was forever conscious of those men and women and all that they had lost. He thought of the young soldiers who vanished on these islands six decades earlier, and of the haunting stories their families passed down through generations. He thought of the first military team that came to find them in 1945. He thought of the strange, pale doctor from California who had taken up the search, returning to the islands year after year for reasons Emery could only imagine. He thought of the retired colonel in Hawaii who had built a special Army unit to find the lost men, hiring hundreds of scientists and explorers who were trained as Emery had been. Few of those scientists, officers, explorers, and family members had ever met. Few of them even knew the others existed. They were all separated by time and distance, by fate and grief and chance, yet he knew that, like the islands themselves, their separateness was an illusion. Beneath the surface, they were all fused together; together they formed an archipelago of grief rooted in this forgotten place. Now the islands called them back.
When Tommy Doyle’s mom died, in 1992, Tommy inherited a big wooden trunk. It was about four feet long and two feet wide, and sitting on the floor of his ranch house in West Texas, it came up to his knee. Tommy could remember seeing that trunk all his life, tucked at the foot of his mother’s bed with books and blankets piled on top, but he’d never looked inside. There was always something private in the way his mom regarded the trunk, so for a while, Tommy left it shut.
His wife, Nancy, was more curious, but she didn’t want to seem nosy. “I decided to let him open it in his own time,” she said later. “But it seemed like he never would.” Nancy was patient. She waited weeks, then months, then a year. Tommy never opened the trunk. He dragged it to a back room, shut the door, and walked away.
Nancy knew enough about Tommy to guess what bothered him. There were painful rumors in his past, stories that cast a shadow over his life—over who he was, who his daddy had been, and why Tommy never knew him. Those were things that Tommy and his mom never discussed. There might be clues inside the trunk, and he wasn’t about to start looking for them now.
Tommy had been just fifteen months old when his dad shipped off to war in 1944, and Jimmie Doyle never came back. Or anyway, that was the official story. That’s the story his mother told him: His daddy’s plane went down in the Pacific Ocean, some patch of islands called Palau. The crew was never found.
But Tommy heard another story growing up, one he wasn’t supposed to hear. As a kid, he heard his uncles whispering. Jimmie was still alive, they said. He’d survived the crash. He’d come back from the war. He was living in California with a new wife and two daughters. He just didn’t care about Tommy anymore.
Tommy never believed that story. Mostly, he didn’t. But he wondered. In time, he grew into a powerful kid, tall and fast, played basketball on the state championship team, starred in high school football. In one game, he scored off two interceptions and kicked the winning field goal. But underneath, the hurt and suspicion coursed through Tommy’s life.
Nothing about the family stories made sense. If his dad was dead, then why did the military send his mom letters that said they were looking for him? Why did the Army say that some of the men on his plane escaped, but they never said which ones? And why didn’t Tommy’s mom remarry, when at least two good men had asked? She and Tommy scraped by on nothing. For a while, they lived in an apartment with no front door. But she never told Tommy that she missed his dad, or loved him, or hoped he would come back. She rarely mentioned Jimmie at all: never told Tommy what his father did or loved, never described his voice or his laugh. She kept Jimmie close, like she couldn’t stand to share what little she had left, not with anyone, not even Tommy.
Football was supposed to be Tommy’s ticket. He got a full ride to Texas Tech in 1961 and joined the Air Force ROTC to earn money on the side. For the first time in Tommy’s life, he had a future and not just a past. If he played hard, he might go pro; if not, he’d stick with the Air Force and follow his dad into the sky.
From the first day of practice, Tommy took off. By junior year, he was on the starting lineup alongside future pros like Donny Anderson and Dave Parks; by the end of that year, when Parks was chosen as the first pick in the NFL draft, Tommy was tied with him for the most touchdown receptions, and he’d set a school record for the most in a single game. “He had great hands,” Donny Anderson said. “We called him ‘Touchdown Tommy.’” Anderson got the call in 1965, drafted by the Packers in the first round for more money than anyone in history. A lot of people thought Tommy Doyle would be next. A lot of people still think he might have been, if things had broken differently. Or if they hadn’t broken at all.
It started with his shoulders in spring practice. They felt loose, wobbly, sore. He’d go to make a play and his arms just wouldn’t do it. He put his joints on ice and slept in the locker room all summer to stay close to the rehab weights. When that didn’t work, he moved to defensive end—but the play was rough and Tommy was lean. He kept taking hard hits. In one game, he came down wrong on a jump and both of his legs got crushed. By the middle of the season, between his shoulders and his knees, he knew his game was over. He lost his spot on the starting lineup, then his place on the team. Then he had to give up his position in ROTC, and with it, his last hope for the future.
Tommy was working in a windowless room at an airplane factory in North Texas when a friend introduced him to Nancy. She came from a prominent family near Dallas, but after she and Tommy got together, she followed him back to West Texas. They got married, bought a ramshackle house in the town of Snyder, and Tommy took a job coaching football at the local school. While Dave Parks roared through a decade in the NFL and Donny Anderson won two Super Bowls, Tommy was on the fields of West Texas shouting for teenagers to hustle. Then a new head coach came in and fired everybody, including Tommy.
A friend was starting an oil company and Tommy went all in. He poured his retirement money into the business, and he poured in Nancy’s, too. Then the oil market bottomed out, and Tommy lost it all again.
Now he was in his late thirties with no job, no savings, no plan, no dreams, and two young kids, one of whom was sick. “I was just born crooked,” his son, Casey Doyle, said. One day it was asthma wracking Casey’s lungs; another day, he was coughing up blood. His little legs were so weak he had to wear metal braces. The medical bills were crushing. One morning, Tommy took Casey to a new doctor and spent the whole day waiting to be seen. At five o’clock the doctor came out to explain that Tommy’s name was on a list of people who couldn’t pay.
Tommy took any job he could find. He mowed lawns. He patched leaky plumbing. He re-grouted tile. He took a job at the local bank, but the oil crash was hurting banks, too. When one of Tommy’s friends got laid off, she went home and shot herself. When the bank called in a loan on another guy, he threatened to blow up the branch—and the whole town came out at three o’clock to see if it would happen. In a good week, Tommy might catch a job building a shed in someone’s yard. In a bad one, he turned to his friends in the church for help.
When another coaching job came up, Tommy Doyle grabbed it. It was only junior high, but he figured that was a blessing in disguise. This was West Texas, after all. A varsity coach was never safe. A few bad seasons and he’d be packing. Tommy had been down that road before. He promised himself that he’d never put ambition over his kids. When the high school offered him a varsity coaching position, he took a JV spot instead. When another school offered to make him head coach, Tommy thanked them anyway. For twenty-five years, he stayed under the radar, mostly running the JV team and helping with varsity on the side. “He did that for us,” Casey said. “He did that for his family and he never said a word.”
But inside, Tommy always wondered. Not about coaching, about everything else. He wondered what else might have been. What would have been, if his dad had come home. He wondered who he might have become, and what he could have given his own kids. He wondered if there was anything to those old family stories. Was it possible that his dad survived? If so, how long? Did he really come back? Why would he refuse to see Tommy? Was there any explanation that could make it all okay?
Tommy pushed the questions down, but they were always there. The slightest mention of his dad would bring the old coach to tears. The doubt lingered inside Tommy like a weight. It was there when he drove to work in the morning, and when he came home at night, unfolding his long, sore body to watch a game tape. It was there when he called out drills on the football field, and when his kids opened their presents on Christmas morning. Sometimes it seemed to Tommy as though he’d spent his whole life waiting for something. Waiting for a future that never came. Waiting for answers to make sense of the past. Waiting for a sign of that twenty-five-year-old kid with the cocky grin and jaunty hat, the rascal eyes that stared back at Tommy from the one good portrait he’d ever seen. On weekends, his mother came to the house and played with the kids and helped in the kitchen, but she never mentioned Tommy’s dad. She never asked Tommy what he heard, or believed, never told him what she knew. Everything stayed packed up and locked away, pushed out of view like the trunk.
FOR NANCY, walking past the trunk was a kind of test. It was Tommy’s past and Tommy’s choice and she wanted to let him make it, but it wasn’t like Nancy to leave a closed door shut. She loved Tommy all the way through, but they were as different as they were in love. When something bothered Tommy, his voice would fade to a whisper and his whole laconic frame would settle into a cryogenic stillness. Not Nancy. She was just about half his size, but she seemed to occupy twice the space, with a high clear voice and biting wit that called out what she saw. When Nancy walked into a room, the lights got a little brighter. When something in the room upset her, the lights got brighter still.
Nancy came from a conservative family, devout in the Church of Christ. Growing up, she’d always kept her faith, but she wore it her own way. She was the daughter who might turn up in town wearing a short skirt and go-go boots, the one who might miss curfew by a lot. When Nancy announced that she was heading off to study at Abilene Christian College, her parents prayed that she’d come home on the arm of a handsome preacher. Instead, she came home with Tommy—a Methodist, a football player, a kid from the West Texas nowhere. “It didn’t go over so well at first,” Casey Doyle said with a chuckle. But Nancy’s family knew better than to try to talk her out of something. They welcomed Tommy and watched him closely, and soon enough they loved him, too.
Back in Snyder, Nancy set about sanding Tommy’s edges. They left his family church to attend the local Church of Christ three times a week. At home, there wasn’t any drinking or smoking or dancing or cursing, except that one time Tommy said, “Crap,” and if little Casey or his sister, Brandi, forgot the rules, well, Nancy helped them remember.
But walking past the trunk involved a different kind of faith for Nancy. It meant leaving things in Tommy’s hands, and doing things Tommy’s way. For two years, Nancy followed that path. For two years, she walked past the trunk. Then two years began to seem like enough.
One night after supper, they were settling into the living room and Nancy brought it up.
“Tommy,” she said quietly, “is it okay if I open your mother’s trunk?”
Tommy hesitated, then he whispered, “Sure.”
So Nancy did.
SHE WAITED UNTIL he was out of the house, then she cleared off the top of the box and pried open the lid, embarrassed by her own racing heart. There was an old blanket on top, and she set it aside, then another blanket, some sweaters, a photo album, and a handmade coat. But near the bottom of the trunk, Nancy spotted an old shoe box. It was worn and separating at the seams, and somehow she knew instantly that she’d found what she wanted. She raised it gingerly to her lap, and lifted the cover.
The envelopes were stacked in tidy rows and Nancy felt her hands trembling as she pulled them out, one by one, the airmail paper as thin as tissue, with red and blue checks around the edges and Jimmie’s loose cursive spilled across the pages inside. Line after line of his thoughts and dreams, all written to Tommy’s mom.
“My Dearest,” he wrote in one of the first, from May 1944. “At last I can write a few lines, but of course there isn’t so very much I can tell you except I’m okay and a long ways from home. I’m in the South Pacific, but can’t say just where. It’s a pretty place, but Lord, it sure is hot. There are worlds of vegetation that I have never seen before, and I would be as well satisfied if I never had. But the nights are really beautiful. We are south of the equator and there are thousands of new stars, and they seem to be a lot closer. There is a lot to do tomorrow, so I will have to stop for now, but I’ll write again soon. Tell the folks hello, and kiss Tommy for me. Keep our home and our baby safe, and maybe in the not too distant future, we can be together again. Write as often as possible, and remember I love you very, very much. Forever, Jimmie.”
A few days later, he wrote again: “My Precious, sure am ready for bed tonight. Have been swimming in the ocean today, and eating coconuts, and trying to find some ripe bananas. Sure wish you could be with me, what a lot of fun we could have, finding all these new things together. Gee, I sure do miss you, and of course you know you are the sweetest wife in the world. I am sending you a necklace and bracelet, made from shells from the sea. I hope you like them, and later on, maybe I can send one to Mother. As I can, I will try to send you different things from this part of the world. Take care of yourself and Tommy, and write often, and know I love you with all my heart. Forever, Jimmie.”
Nancy stopped reading and stared forward, trying to grasp what it meant. There seemed to be a new letter almost every day, most of them several pages long, but Tommy’s mom had never shown them to anyone or even hinted that she had them. When Tommy got home, Nancy found herself crying as she said, “Oh, Tommy, just look,” but Tommy turned away, his eyes welling up and his big hands shaking. So Nancy came back to the box for a few hours each night, curled up on the sofa to drift through Jimmie’s words. She read V-mail cards from training in Nevada, and eight-page descriptions of the islands and the ocean, and long professions of his love signed with that word, Forever.
“Darling,” he wrote at the end of his first week, “there aren’t any words to tell you how much I love you. But you know that our love can stand this being apart.” A few weeks later, he wrote from the combat zone, “It gives me a feeling of serenity knowing there will be a place waiting for me, a place where I can settle for good, and try to make up to you in part for all of the things you have had to put up with. There are times when I get to feeling pretty low about the whole business, but then when I realize that it is tough for you too, and how uncomplaining you have been about it all, it makes me feel pretty cheap.”
The more Nancy read, the more bewildering the letters seemed. Looking at them, it was impossible to imagine that Jimmie had abandoned Tommy and his mom—but then, why did Jimmie’s brothers insist that he had? Why did they swear he’d called them from California, and that they’d driven out to see him, arriving at Jimmie’s apartment just as he slipped away—leaving his neighbors to confirm that he was alive?
Nancy tried to ask Tommy what else he knew, but Tommy just winced and shook his head. He knew nothing, he said. He wished he knew less. He wasn’t even sure of his dad’s rank, let alone what sort of man he was. Every time Tommy saw the letters, his throat closed up.
“I just couldn’t look at them,” he said. As the months went by, he never did.
Neither did Casey. “I was against my mother bringing all this up,” he said later. “You just didn’t talk about this. You didn’t talk about it because Dad didn’t want to. So when Mom started reading all the letters, I was like, ‘Mom, please don’t bring it up. Dad doesn’t like it.’”
But Nancy wouldn’t stop. She wasn’t even sure she could. There had to be an answer, some way to make it all make sense. She started placing phone calls to learn more about Jimmie. She called the Department of Veterans Affairs to see if they knew his combat history. She called the Army’s human resources office to request his service records. She even called a local Army recruiter to find out if there was anything left from his enlistment—some scrap of paper or hidden detail that might point toward an answer. But no matter where Nancy looked, she came up empty. The Army didn’t have a personnel file, they said. They had no record of his enlistment, no file on his missions, no information on his squadron or his crash. In fact, they didn’t have much more than his name in a database. Everything else about Jimmie Doyle, they said, had disappeared—probably burned up in a fire in Saint Louis.
“I was skeptical,” Nancy said. “I kept telling them to look, but they kept telling me everything burned. I thought, Everything?”
A year passed, then another, and Nancy’s hunt trailed off. She knew only fragments, and they didn’t add up. From the letters, she could see that Jimmie’s unit moved across several islands in the South Pacific, and she gathered from Tommy that Jimmie had been a tail gunner on a B-24 bomber, manning a machine gun at the back of the plane. But where did he fly? What targets did he hit? How much combat did he see? And why did his return address show a promotion to sergeant in midsummer? Nothing in the letters explained what Jimmie might have done to earn the rank. There were only vague references to the war. “I can’t tell you any details,” he would write, “but the Japs are sorry I’m here.”
Nancy found a few other letters in the trunk, written by Jimmie’s friends after he disappeared. But those letters brought up more questions than answers. “I have talked to some of the fellows who flew the same day and saw what happened,” one man wrote. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you now the whole story. But when I return to the States, I am coming to see you.” There was no sign he’d ever come.
As Nancy’s search faltered, so did her confidence. Maybe it had been a mistake to read the letters. Maybe Tommy and Casey were right. Maybe it was better to live with the scar than to reopen the wound. She’d wanted to make sense of Tommy’s past, but now it made less sense than ever.
By May 2000, six years had passed since Nancy first opened the trunk. She’d stopped making calls and asking questions about Jimmie, but she was always on the watch. As she skimmed through the newspaper over Memorial Day weekend, she spotted an article in Parade magazine. Some doctor in California named Pat Scannon was searching for missing airplanes. He was tracking down men like Jimmie who disappeared in Palau. There was a picture of Scannon on the opening page, a leathery figure with a gray beard, who stood before a vintage bomber with a climbing rope tossed over his shoulder. The article described him as “the Indiana Jones of military archaeology,” and Nancy practically ran to the computer to find his phone number. She left a message at his office, and a few days later, Scannon called back. His voice sounded weary. He’d been flooded with calls, he said. He wanted to get back to everyone, but it was hard.
Nancy swallowed. “Well,” she said, “I just wanted you to know that my husband’s name is Tommy Doyle and his father was Jimmie Doyle . . .”
Scannon’s voice perked up. “And his plane went down on September 1, 1944,” he said, “and the tail number ended in 453, and the pilot was Jack Arnett, and . . .”
Nancy listened in disbelief as Scannon rattled off a dozen details she’d never heard. When he paused, she whispered, “But how did you know all that?”
“Because,” Pat Scannon said, “I’ve been searching for that plane for six years.”
The first time Pat Scannon went to Palau, he wasn’t sure what he was searching for. He wasn’t even sure why he’d come. Officially, he was part of a scuba expedition looking for a sunken Japanese ship, but Scannon wasn’t a very good scuba diver, he didn’t know much about the ship, and he hadn’t even heard of Palau until a few months earlier.
It was 1993, and Scannon was not the kind of guy who typically disappeared on exotic vacations. He was a medical researcher in his midforties who worked for a small biotech company in a suburban office park in California, and he was sufficiently uninterested in the great outdoors that his wife, Susan, had long since given up asking for his help in the garden—where instead of pruning or planting or weeding he tended to stare into the distance, thinking about work. Though he was licensed as a physician, held a PhD in chemistry, and had actually founded the company where he worked, Scannon also had little interest in corporate affairs. Years earlier, he’d given up control of the company to a team of experienced executives, preferring to focus his own attention on esoteric research into therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. He sometimes confessed to his friends that he’d only built the Xoma Corporation because he wanted a job there, and having built it, he arrived for work each morning with his plastic ID tag dangling from a lanyard around his neck, disappearing inside his office to spend ten or twelve hours under the fluorescent lights. A typical workweek for Scannon consisted of sixty hours at Xoma, plus the hour’s drive to and from his stucco home on a dead-end street in town.
Like most things in Scannon’s life, the invitation to Palau came while he was at work. One of his colleagues at Xoma was a man named Chip Lambert, who ran the company’s infectious disease program. Like Scannon, Lambert had spent his career studying the intersection of chemistry and medicine, but their similarities ended there. Where Scannon was shy and unassuming, with a light, airy voice that tended to wash away in a crowd, Lambert was tall and burly and strode the hallways of Xoma with a gruff exuberance. He had a mop of curly hair and a brushy mustache that danced above a mischievous grin, and he was a world-class scuba diver who’d spent much of the 1970s tooling around the Middle East—working for the king’s hospital in Saudi Arabia, then briefly at the World Health Organization, while zipping away each weekend to dive the earth’s finest waters, from Scotland to New Zealand and throughout the Red Sea. Now that Lambert was back in California, he and his wife, Pam, ran a small scuba shop on the weekends. When Lambert offered diving classes to his colleagues at Xoma, Scannon was among the first to sign up. Over a few weekends, he earned a basic scuba certification, but mostly enjoyed soaking up Lambert’s stories about Cyprus, Vanuatu, and the Poor Knights Islands, a world that Scannon could hardly imagine. Then Lambert started talking about Palau, and Scannon wondered if they were both imagining it.
There was gold on the islands, Lambert said. Hidden gold, mountains of it, stolen by the Japanese during World War II and buried in secret hideaways throughout the Pacific. For half a century, treasure hunters had been tracking down various deposits. They called it “Yamashita’s gold,” after a notorious Japanese general, and the total value was said to be $100 billion. There were books on the treasure, and lawsuits over it, and more than a few ruined lives. A year earlier, Imelda Marcos of the Philippines confessed that most of her own fortune came from the gold, but a man named Rogelio Roxas claimed that Marcos had stolen it from him, after he uncovered a secret bunker in the Philippine hills full of gems and swords and a golden Buddha whose head was stuffed with diamonds. That case was making its way through the US courts, which would soon award Roxas $22 billion in damages.
Meanwhile, several of Lambert’s friends were tracking another deposit of the gold. They had sources in the Japanese government who said that a hospital ship had been sunk in 1945 while ferrying some of the treasure past Palau. By studying old maps and documents, Lambert and his friends hoped to find the ship and bring home the gold. But first they were planning a preliminary trip to generate publicity and funds.
Scannon listened with his jaw hanging open. It sounded like something from a serial film, or a comic he might have read as a child. Tintin and the Golden Buddha. But Lambert was just beginning. The preliminary trip, he explained, was a search for the first combat kill of President George H. W. Bush. During the summer of 1944, Bush was a young naval aviator flying photographic reconnaissance missions over the islands. One day in July, he sank his first enemy vessel, a 150-foot trawler. The mission report placed that strike on a northern atoll called Kayangel (kayh-ang-el'), but after half a century of diving and fishing in the area, no one had found the trawler. Now Lambert’s team had come across photos taken during the mission, which showed the ship going down beside a distinctive patch of coral. They planned to bring the photos to Palau, locate the patch of coral, and drag a magnetometer through the water to pinpoint the ship’s metal. Then they would shoot underwater video of the sunken wreck, and produce a documentary on the forty-first American president’s virgin kill. They would use all the money and publicity from the documentary to fund the search for Yamashita’s gold.
“What we wanted to do,” Lambert said later, “was find the wreck, make the movie, and sell the documentary to raise funds for the treasure hunt.”
If the whole thing sounded vaguely cartoonish, the divers and historians on Lambert’s team put Scannon’s doubt to rest. The leader of the group was Dan Bailey, a renowned historian of the islands, whose most recent book, WWII Wrecks of Palau, had already become the definitive guide to the island waters. It was Bailey who came up with the mission photos, from a Navy photographer named Bob Stinnett who flew in Bush’s squadron. At seventy, Stinnett couldn’t join the mission himself, but he was closely involved in the planning. The team also included a scuba pro named Dave Buller, who’d helped discover some of the most famous shipwrecks in Palau, along with several notable sites off the California coast, where he spent his free time scouring the continental shelf for abalone snails as large as a soccer ball, prying them loose while holding his breath and hauling them up for supper. Both of the Lamberts were also coming, and had spent enough time in Palau that the cover of Bailey’s book was actually a photo of Pam gliding past the gear shaft of a sunken destroyer. The team had even secured a TV crew to film underwater.
When Lambert suggested that Scannon tag along, Scannon found himself grinning and nodding. He didn’t have much to offer the team, but he didn’t much care. As a doctor, he could always bandage a scraped knee. But what really mattered to Scannon was that, after a decade of working sixty-hour weeks, which had brought his first marriage to an end and left little time for his second, he finally had a way to break up the routine with a shot of adventure. In fact, his second wife, Susan, was an accomplished diver herself, and he convinced her to join him after the mission for a few days of sightseeing on the islands. So, on a cool summer afternoon, Scannon headed west—through Hawaii, then Guam, before landing on Palau, where he joined the team on the beachfront estate of a resort hotel to watch the red sun cannonball into a sea of surprises.
BUT THE MISSION was already changing. Through a bizarre coincidence, on the same week that Scannon landed in Palau, the September issue of Harper’s Magazine was landing on newsstands with an article that would throw his vacation into headline news.
The story consisted of just two pages, which were mostly filled with a reproduction of the mission report from Bush’s attack on the trawler. But in a series of pullout annotations, a writer for the magazine claimed that the old document offered “strong circumstantial evidence that George Bush committed a war crime as a rookie Navy pilot.”
As Scannon gathered with Lambert, Bailey, and the rest of the team for breakfast in the open-air lobby of the hotel, they huddled over the Harper’s story to figure out what the reporter meant. Though Bailey had a copy of the mission report and had read it dozens of times, he was baffled by the suggestion that it revealed anything nefarious. In most respects, it seemed to him like a thousand other wartime documents. There was a brief description of the 250-mile flight from an aircraft carrier to the islands; a list of the planes in Bush’s squadron, known as VT-51; and a terse account of the strike on the trawler, noting that Bush scored the vital hit. The final sentence concluded, “The trawler sank within five minutes, with its crew taking to two life boats, which VT strafed.” Except for the brief reference to a future president, nothing about the document struck Lambert, Bailey, or the rest of the team as unusual.
But for the Harper’s writer, the line about lifeboats was crucial. Depending on how one interpreted it, the attack could have been illegal. If, as the Harper’s writer suggested, the language implied that Japanese soldiers boarded their lifeboats without weapons, and then Bush swooped down to strafe “defenseless combatants,” it would indeed be a war crime. But the document said nothing of the sort. Like so many wartime reports, it had been hurried together by a harried officer who was already focused on the next day’s events, and it left out far too many details to draw such precise conclusions. It didn’t say, for example, that the Japanese soldiers were defenseless. They might just as easily have climbed into the lifeboats with their sidearms for protection, or even the lightweight Nambu machine guns common to the period. Nor did the mission report say which pilot strafed the lifeboats. Maybe it was the same pilot who sank the trawler, Ensign George Bush. Then again, maybe not.
As it happened, those very questions had been circulating in Washington for several months. During the final weeks of the 1992 presidential campaign, nine months earlier, the mission report materialized in the mailboxes of several prominent reporters. Though the timing reeked of an October surprise, the allegations were serious, and some of the most venerable names in news, including the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek, launched investigations. As their reporters scoured the US and Japanese archives in search of clarifying detail, they came up empty. By Election Day, not a single magazine or newspaper had discovered enough evidence to justify a story. Nor had the Harper’s writer uncovered anything new. The closest he came was a single quote from a gunner on the mission, who said he couldn’t remember the incident but allowed that “it might have happened.”
Still, with the Harper’s article on newsstands, the floodgates were open for other news groups to “follow up” on the story. While Scannon was on his way to Palau, a deluge of television reporters had been tracking down veterans of Bush’s squadron, including Bob Stinnett, who pointed them toward the team in Palau. As phone calls lit up the switchboard of the waterfront resort, Bailey and Lambert found themselves inundated with media requests. By the time they boarded a flat-bottomed boat for their first day of diving, three days had passed and they’d struck a deal with Nightline to provide video for an exclusive segment.
All of which Pat Scannon watched in a state of dazed amusement. According to Bailey and Buller, the most striking thing about Lambert’s friend was how utterly disengaged he was—a cheerful spectator who wandered the hotel grounds while the rest of the team scrambled to take phone calls, secure gear, and coordinate logistics. “If Chip wanted him along,” Bailey said later, “that was fine. But he wasn’t a major part of the team.”
“He didn’t really contribute,” Buller added. “He just came along.”
As the boat finally sped north toward Kayangel, Scannon stared west to where the shallow water of the archipelago plunged into the fullness of the sea. The whole peculiar madness of the journey seemed written upon the landscape—these lost islands, a thousand miles from anywhere, filled with buried treasure and sunken warships and rumors of a president’s crimes. Who cared how much of it was true? He had come to the islands to recharge himself with change, and whatever else he might see or discover, he had already found that. It was everywhere around him, in the gleaming iridescent ocean, the teeming jungle, the screech of wild birds, and the pile of mesh scuba bags strewn across the floor of the boat beside boxes filled with video equipment and the long, torpedo-shaped magnetometer.
After two hours, the boat slowed down and Kayangel came into view, a tiny cluster of four mint-green islets poking through the water’s surface. Bailey dug into his bag for the mission photos. He raised them up against the horizon, squinting as he compared the images with the landscape before him. He turned the photos left, then right, and frowned. The pictures didn’t match. Where they showed a long, continuous arc of coral, the reef before him was mostly flat with a bulging promontory in the middle. The reef could change in fifty years, but not by that much.
The sun was creeping past its zenith as the small boat puttered through the water. Bailey laid the photos down and pulled out a map. He studied the surrounding landscape as a realization hit him: The photos didn’t match Kayangel because they weren’t Kayangel. There was another atoll just five miles north and nearly the same size. The islanders called it Ngaruangel (ner-angle'), but it was virtually unknown to the outside world. In fact, it probably did not appear on World War II maps. If the trawler had gone down on Ngaruangel, aviators like Bush would have written down the name of the nearest atoll. That would explain why, in fifty years of diving Kayangel, no one had seen the ship. It was never there.
It took only a few minutes to speed north to the Ngaruangel reef. As the boat drew close, Dave Buller dropped his magnetometer into the water, crouching over the handheld monitor to watch for signs of metal. Bailey picked up the photos again, comparing them with a new horizon. They motored slowly along the edge of the shoal, and as they moved, Bailey saw the transformation unfolding. Like the shifting lines of a kaleidoscope, his perspective on the landscape morphed until it matched the pictures.
“Hey!” he cried out to Buller, “we’ve gotta be almost on top of it!” But even as the words came out, he heard Buller calling back: “I’m getting hits!”
There was a palpable tension as the boat pulled to a stop and the team began to suit up. It’s almost too easy, Bailey thought. They had been on the water just a few hours, and in Ngaruangel for only a few minutes. But the combination of pings on the magnetometer and a match with the photos made it difficult to tamp down expectations. As the team stretched into neoprene wetsuits, strapped on weight belts, and slipped into tanks, Pam Lambert hit the water first. Scannon dropped in behind her, swimming down hard through the darkening water to maximize his time on the bottom. After forty feet, he saw the seafloor and righted himself in the water. He blinked and stared at the landscape around him.
The wreckage was unmistakable; it was everywhere. A dusty haze drifted across the massive hull of the ship, ripped open by the blast from Bush’s bomber, with its gear strewn in all directions and encrusted in half a century of staghorn coral. Scannon saw Bailey and Buller a few yards away, moving across the debris field together. He drifted over to join them, following as they pointed out the telltale signs. Not only was the ship fitted with mounts for a seventy-five-millimeter cannon, but the cannon shells were packed into a ready box nearby, and the seafloor was strewn with thousands of rounds of linked machine-gun ammunition. So they were armed, Scannon thought. In hindsight, it seemed obvious. Only a fool would throw down his weapon as he boarded a tiny lifeboat with enemy planes circling overhead and an ocean of sharks below.
For thirty minutes, the team swept through the twisted metal, finally coming to the surface with whoops of joy. None of them doubted what they’d found. Whatever else the Japanese sailors had been—young, naïve, filled up with nationalistic bravado, even honorable in their own way—they had clearly been armed. By finding the wreckage, Bailey and his team had solved a fifty-year mystery and, they were now certain, exonerated a president. In the days ahead, as they returned to the States, they would broadcast their discovery on Nightline for the world to see. Only Scannon would stay behind.
He picked up Susan at the airport, and over dinner on their first night, they nursed a pair of beers while Pat leaned across the table, whispering excitedly about the rush of discovery and having felt so close to history. By the time they returned to their hotel that night, they had decided to scrap their plans to visit tourist sites like the Blue Holes and Blue Corner. Instead, they would spend the next four days exploring World War II wreckage on the islands.
They hired a local guide, Hudson Yalap, to drive them into the hills and jungle, stopping to wade through elephant grass, past the ruins of Japanese encampments and the cindered spires of old radio towers that rested like dinosaur bones in the damp earth. And on their final morning, they boarded a small boat with Yalap and a second guide, Lucky Malsol, to visit underwater wrecks. Neither of the Scannons had any idea where the guides planned to take them, and as the boat slipped away from the dock, they stared forward at the open water, never imagining how long the journey ahead would be.
EVEN AFTER HALF A CENTURY, the waters of the archipelago were strewn with relics of war. In shoals that were sometimes just a few feet deep, a casual snorkeler could drift away from a hotel beach through the glimmering surf and discover a pile of unspent ammunition, or the barrel of a ship’s cannon, or even a whole Japanese seaplane resting on the sandy bottom. With a scuba tank, it was possible to swim inside the plane, climbing into the cockpit to tug at the controls and shoot down passing fish like a pilot in some aquatic fantasy.
With so many wartime wrecks to choose from, Yalap and Malsol might have taken the Scannons to one of the popular sites: maybe the Japanese mine-laying ship filled with stacks of military helmets, or one of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes crumpled in the shallows. But instead, the guides steered the boat to a bay just south of Koror Island, weaving a course between small islets before slowing to a crawl. Malsol guided the boat to the edge of a little island, not much bigger than a house. In the waist-deep water, colorful fish darted away from the hull. Scannon frowned. It didn’t look like a wreck site; it looked like a typical tropical beach. This is nice, he thought, but why are we here?
Then he saw the wing. As Malsol pulled around a bend in the coral, the whole thing came into view at once: a massive strip of metal, at least fifty feet long and gleaming in the sun. The aluminum skin was peeled back in places to reveal a lacework of struts inside, and as Malsol lowered the throttle to approach it, Scannon called over the engine, “What kind of plane?” But the guide only shook his head.
There was a long silence as Malsol flipped off the engine and retrieved an anchor from the foredeck. Wavelets lapped against the boat. Scannon stared at the wing. As soon as the anchor hit water, he leaped over the gunwale, striding quickly toward the wing. He heard Susan behind him.
There was a propeller mounted on the leading edge, and as Scannon got closer, he could see that the blades were bent and fractured from impact with the coral. A few feet away, there was a second engine attached to the wing, and Scannon felt his heart pound as the significance sank in. “This was a four-engine plane,” he whispered when Susan caught up. She nodded, and walked toward the second engine, crouching for a look.
“Pat,” she said. She pointed at the engine mount. He stepped over and peered in. There was a number stamped on a bolt—a number, he realized, not a character—and beneath it, an ID plate with clear black lettering said “eneral Electric.”
Scannon felt a chill wash over his body. He was surprised by how much it really felt like a chill—as if the temperature of the water had plunged to nearly freezing. It began with numbness in his lower legs, then crept into his thighs, through his waist, and up his torso to his neck, until the skin on the crown of his head felt tight and his hair stood at attention, all the feeling in his body draining away. This was an American plane, he thought. Then he corrected himself. This is an American grave.
Excerpted from Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II by Wil S. Hylton
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