The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How one man’s obsession led to the discovery of a lost WWII pilot

Doug Beckstead on one of his visits to the crash site of a B-24 bomber near the Charley River in Alaska. (Courtesy of David Myers)

In late June 1994, a helicopter banked over the Charley River in Alaska’s eastern Yukon wilderness. Below, on a hillside of granite and greenstone, was the wreckage of a B-24D bomber that went down Dec. 21, 1943 during a flight to test the plane’s systems in extreme cold.

Doug Beckstead, a National Park Service historian, pressed his face against the glass for his first view of the “Iceberg Inez,” one of the many hulks of lost aircraft across Alaska.

This one came with a remarkable backstory. The lone survivor — co-pilot 1st Lt. Leon Crane, a city kid from Philadelphia — made his way out of the frozen Yukon wilds after an 81-day ordeal.

Four crew members died in the crash. The remains of two were found by military teams in 1944, guided to the crash site by Crane. A third parachuted from the doomed plane just before Crane bailed out. His remains are believed somewhere in the spruce-and-birch hills of what is now the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

The pilot, 2nd Lt. Harold E. Hoskin of Maine, never made it off the plane. His remains went missing for decades — until Beckstead came along.

The historian’s first visit to the site in 1994 began a story of obsession, persistence and forensic science that would span 13 years — and mark another case taken up by the same U.S. military outfit that will attempt to identify the remains of Korean War service members that North Korea is expected to hand over.

The agency that would eventually investigate the crash site, the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, is part field detective, wartime historian and lab analyst rolled into one. Its roots go back to rudimentary identification labs during the Korean War and later in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Its flagship site is now a state-of-the-art forensic facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

Thousands of Japanese fought to hold an island in Alaska. Only 28 survived.

More than 80,000 U.S. military personnel are listed as missing in action or “killed in action and body not recovered” since Pearl Harbor. The overwhelming majority — more than 70,000 — are from World War II. Nearly 7,700 American military personnel remain unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, according to the U.S. military.

Often an accidental find of possible remains will open a recovery operation. But what is much rarer is an amateur sleuth — like Beckstead — setting a case in motion.

Beckstead would return to the B-24 crash site many times to look for any clues to the fate of Hoskin, who was part of the Cold Weather Test Detachment at Ladd Field outside Fairbanks.

At the time, U.S. commanders feared another Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands or possible new Arctic battlefields in Norway or Greenland. Ladd Field became a proving ground for planes and other equipment in ultra-freezing conditions — as well as a hub for Soviet pilots taking loaned U.S. plans back over the Bering Sea and onto the Western Front.

Beckstead combed the crash site for years. He collected and cataloged every interesting fragment. Some turned out to be dead ends: pieces of animal bones or scraps of metal he thought were buttons from an officer’s jacket. Yet there were enough circumstantial clues — as well as Beckstead’s relentless appeals to U.S. military officials — to open a field investigation.

On Aug. 31, 2006, a team laid out a dig zone amid the debris and rocks — some coated with melted aluminum from the B-24’s fireball. “It was one of those roll-the-dice situations,” the team leader, anthropologist Gregory L. Fox, said later.

Bag by bag, the team found artifacts from the crash, including bits and teeth and bone and an officer’s cap insignia from what was then the Army Air Corps.

The analysis at the lab in Hawaii first compared the teeth against Hoskin’s military file from November 1942. There was just not enough physical evidence to make a definite match. The analysis then turned to the pieces of shattered skeleton: skull, vertebrae, femur and ribs. The conclusion: Likely male, 20 to 30 years old, cause of death probably “fire and blunt-force impact.” Hoskin was 28 when the plane went down.

Still not enough to make a conclusive ID.

Fortunately, Hoskin’s brother John was still alive. It gave the military team one of the most the powerful tools in DNA forensics: mitochondrial DNA.

The mitochondrial sequence is passed by the mother. Generally, offspring from the same maternal line have a common mitochondrial DNA map with some unique, and naturally occurring, mutations with each generation. It’s this mix of shared DNA sequence and the various anomalies that allow geneticists to trace family lines from children to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother and so on.

On March 7, 2007, a report the scientific director of the Central Identification Laboratory, Thomas D. Holland, concluded: “In my opinion, the results of laboratory analysis and the totality of the circumstantial evidence made available to me establish the remains . . . as those of 2nd Lt. Harold E. Hoskin.

Six months later, eight military pallbearers carried the coffin with Hoskin’s remains into the Fort Myer Old Post Chapel for a service before burial at grave 310, Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery.

A bugler played taps. A B-2 stealth bomber passed overhead. The honor guard fired a salute. The shell casings were gathered and distributed. Beckstead received one. He carried it back to Alaska, where he died in 2014 in his home still filled with the files and photos from B-24 crash site.

Brian Murphy is the author of “81 Days Below Zero”, which recounts Crane’s survival after the crash and Beckstead’s efforts to identify Hoskin’s remains. His upcoming book, “Adrift”, chronicles a shipwreck in 1856 in the North Atlantic.