Finding history: Web, vets help unearth war wrecks
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 1:35 PM
HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- Justin Taylan boots up his laptop computer in the climate-controlled comfort of a cafe and clicks on photographs of a World War II airplane lying in pieces amid a steamy jungle on the other side of the world.
He browses through a series of digital images of the vine-entangled wreckage of the American C-47B Dakota, which slammed into a mountain in Malaysia during a supply mission in November 1945. The cockpit, believed to still contain the remains of the three-member crew, lies embedded in the mountainside.
Taylan's computer file with the C-47 photographs, e-mailed to him last fall, is just one of thousands he has compiled for his website, the key component of his effort to document World War II airplane crash sites in the Pacific.
"Things are being found all the time. With the advent of the Internet, the next day we can find out about it," Taylan said.
His Pacific Wrecks project has a dual mission: locate undiscovered U.S. airplane wreckage and determine the fates of the thousands of American airmen still listed as missing in the Second World War's Pacific Theater.
"I hate a mystery," Taylan says inside the cafe at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in his hometown of Hyde Park, 60 miles south of Albany.
Each year the 33-year-old son of school teachers heads to the Pacific to search remote jungles for wartime relics long forgotten by everyone except fellow wreck hunters, U.S. military officials and the dwindling number of veterans who fought in the Pacific.
He latched onto the quest for crash sites when he was 16 and visited South Pacific battlefields with his grandfather, Carl Thien, an Army combat photographer who served in New Guinea and the Philippines.
"To this day, these countries have wrecks and relics and bomb craters and bullets all over from the war," he said. "This idea of history in situ, or history that is untouched from the war, cocooned by time, cocooned by the jungle growing around it, just really intrigued me."
Pacific Wrecks Inc., Taylan's nonprofit organization, is a one-man operation. Taylan, who earns a living as a freelance website designer, said he has visited more than 250 aircraft wrecks, plus dozens of shipwrecks, around the Pacific. He has hacked his way across dense jungles, slogged through crocodile-infested swamps and spent a few weeks in custody when his interest in a U.S. warplane being removed by a salvage company put him on the wrong side of authorities in the Solomon Islands, northeast of Australia.
As his website became more well known among wreck-hunting circles, veterans and relatives of MIAs started sending him e-mails seeking any information on their missing comrades and loved-ones, Taylan said.
Of the approximately 74,000 Americans still listed as missing in action in World War II, about 48,000 were lost in the Pacific Theater, according to the U.S. Department of Defense's Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC. The Air Force alone reported approximately 22,000 airmen missing or captured during the Pacific campaign.