That Scannon was the person who ultimately picked up the scent of the lost crew was something of a fluke. A weekend diving enthusiast without much scuba experience, he had joined the 1993 Palau expedition mainly as an excuse to take an exotic vacation. After he and the other divers accomplished their objective — locating a Japanese trawler sunk in 1944 by a young pilot named George H.W. Bush — Scannon stayed on to do a little casual exploration on his own. When a local guide took him to see the remains of an airplane wing lying in the shallows off Koror Island, Scannon found himself suddenly consumed by curiosity. He simply had to find out what plane that wing had belonged to and exactly how it had come to rest in that lonely spot.
The story of Scannon’s long (and obsessive) investigation of the Big Stoop crash provides the core of the book’s narrative. But Hylton interlaces it with numerous other threads, including accounts of the missing men’s families, a reconstruction of the bomber crew’s last mission and the backstories of many of the other characters — military and civilian — who ultimately involved themselves in the search for the plane and its secrets. For such a relatively short book, “Vanished” has a huge cast and a lot of moving parts, but Hylton juggles them with supreme adroitness. As the book rockets back and forth in time, and from the North Pacific to Washington to the various home towns of the missing airmen, he keeps the action lean and propulsive, investing even military-archives research with a sense of urgency and excitement.
“Vanished” does have some rough spots. Hylton’s prose can become overheated at times, and the early chapters in particular read a little like the script of a movie trailer. (“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.”) And there are some oddities of pacing and emphasis throughout. For instance, Hylton focuses almost entirely on the search for the B-24’s fuselage — and the men presumably trapped inside — but barely mentions the crewmen who were seen parachuting from the plane before it crashed. Their fate as captives of the Japanese is taken up only on Page 223 (of a 239-page text) and then almost as an afterthought.
But “Vanished” excels where it counts most — in its depiction of the war’s personal toll on those who fought it and on the families they sometimes did not return to. Hylton earned the trust of a number of the crewmen’s relatives, and their caches of saved letters — quoted liberally in the book — give the story a powerful emotional heft. Access to their correspondence also allows Hylton to bring several of the missing men to life as fleshed-out individuals whose fate we readers end up truly caring about.
The book culminates with a moving scene at Arlington Cemetery in April 2010, with most of the Big Stoop families coming together to witness the burial of bones recovered from the plane’s fuselage, which was located in 2004. Some of the families’ long-standing questions about the crew’s last hours had been answered, though uncertainties remained. But somehow the tangible presence of those bones had made the lingering unknowns less haunting, less corrosive. As Hylton writes of the families, “They had come to bury not only the dead, but the mystery and wonder.”
Thanks to the work of Scannon and many others like him, decades of pain and doubt could finally be laid to rest.
Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of “The White Cascade” and “City of Scoundrels.”