VANISHED: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, by Wil S. Hylton. Riverhead, 272 pp., $27.95.
The official story was that the war in the Pacific claimed Jimmie Doyle on Sept. 1, 1944, when Japanese antiaircraft fire brought down his B-24 Liberator during a bombing mission over the tiny Palau archipelago. Neither the plane nor a single member of the 11-man crew was ever found. But there was always a second, darker story, and it haunted Jimmie's son, Tommy, for most of his life.
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Tommy's uncles believed Jimmie had survived and started a new family in California. It seemed dubious, but who could say for sure? After all, letters arrived at the house from time to time to say the military was still looking. And why hadn't his mom ever remarried, despite two good proposals? Maybe Jimmie was, in fact, still out there.
Wil S. Hylton's superb new book, "Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II," explores this mystery. Part Pacific Theater history, part Indiana Jones thriller, "Vanished" pays tribute to the men who were lost in a largely forgotten campaign, and it celebrates the determination of the divers and scientists who risk their lives in exotic places to bring the missing home.
Hylton's narrative charges, and his writing is lean and vivid, especially when it depicts battle. Here, the Japanese scramble U.S. bombers: "As the first squadron approached, a swarm of Japanese Zeros leaped from the airfields toward them, zipping around the Fifth bombers and dancing in the air above them, swooping down like knives to slice through them, rattling them with machine-gun fire, and then looping overhead again to drop phosphorous bombs that exploded into tentacles of white-hot liquid dripping down the clouds."
The book points out that the "number of men who disappeared in the war against Japan" is "nearly the same as the total number of combat deaths in Vietnam." It exposes the exceptional grief of M.I.A. families, debunking the myth that the "men and women of the 'greatest generation' were imbued with a special storehouse of stoicism."
But what's most refreshing about "Vanished" is its clear- eyed, affectionate portrait of the servicemen. In one anecdote, a reckless, gifted young pilot swoops low along some railroad tracks during a night training flight to play chicken with an oncoming engine. "It was easy to imagine the airmen as gallant young heroes, but of course they weren't," Hylton writes. "They were all sorts of men, as prickly and troubled, crude and foolish as anyone else."
Early in the book, Tommy's wife, Nancy, has second thoughts about her own search for Jimmie Doyle. "Maybe it was better to live with the scar," Hylton writes, "than to reopen the wound." "Vanished" reminds us that, sometimes, scars heal.