New film features WW II search
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As a webmaster, Reid Joyce has long been documenting the missions of the BentProp Project, a team of volunteers dedicated to recovering the remains of World War II airmen killed in action in and around the South Pacific nation of Palau.
But now the story of their work has been packaged for the first time in a commercially distributed film.
"Last Flight Home," produced by two members of the BentProp team, is a sober look at the passion of these adventurers as they search the waters and jungles for some of the 200 planes shot down by the Japanese in 1944.
"My overall thought is that they did a remarkable job," said Mr. Joyce, a retiree in Valencia who last visited Palau with the BentProp team in February. "It just reinforces the feeling that we're doing this, not only for these guys who have been missing for decades, but also the families who have been wondering what happened."
Palau is a tourist destination now, but the remote islands are also a battleground largely forgotten by history.
In 1944, the Navy and Marines fought a series of vicious engagements there against the Japanese as part of the U.S. island-hopping campaign, suffering 1,285 killed and more than 6,000 wounded. Nearly the entire force of 11,000 Japanese died.
Corsairs, Hellcats, TBF Avengers and B-24 Liberators litter the dense jungle and shallow waters around the islands.
The BentProp Project was founded by Dr. Patrick Scannon, a San Francisco physician and research scientist, to pay tribute to the fighting men who flew those machines.
Dr. Scannon first traveled to the islands in 1993 as part of an expedition to find the trawler sunk by Navy pilot George H.W. Bush in July 1944. He found it, and got hooked on the idea of finding other wrecks.
Over time, he began assembling a team of other divers with the means and time to travel and explore.
Dr. Scannon also created a non-profit corporation, BentStar, to collect donations to help continue the missions. Part of the proceeds from "Last Flight Home" support the cause.
Mr. Joyce and the others didn't lose any family members on the islands and have no personal stake in the battles fought there. Their only allegiance, they say, is to the honor of young heroes who died for their country.
"We want to say thank you," Dr. Scannon, who grew up in a military family, explains in the film.
Mr. Joyce isn't in the video, but he was there many times while it was being shot and interacted with some of the families of missing airmen still looking for information after 60 years.
BentProp can often deduce the probable identity of missing airmen based on after-action reports, information from families and even interviews with former Japanese soldiers. But official identification is the job of JPAC, or Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii. JPAC researchers recover what they can and take it to their forensic lab, the largest in the world, for DNA analysis.
The work of JPAC and BentProp on Palau was recently featured in a stirring piece in GQ magazine, which focused on the search for Jimmie Doyle, a Texas tailgunner on a B-24 shot down on Sept. 1, 1944. Three of the 11 crew members bailed out and were beheaded by the Japanese. The others died in the crash.
The hunt for that B-24 and its crew, especially the fate of Jimmie Doyle, is also one of the highlights of "Last Flight Home."
In 2000, Tommy Doyle, Mr. Doyle's son, and Tommy's wife, Nancy, saw an article in Parade magazine about Dr. Scannon's work on Palau and called him, hoping he could find out what happened to Jimmie.
Dr. Scannon already knew a lot about the B-24 because he'd spent six years searching for it.
The film shows Dr. Scannon's interviews of islanders who remember seeing three parachutes floating from the stricken plane and his attempts to find the site where the beheadings took place.
The film also includes an interview that Dr. Scannon conducted in Japan of Tetsuji Katsuyama, a former Imperial Japanese Army officer who recalled with remorse how he killed one of the airmen with a sword.
"I cut his head off," he says. "Whenever I passed his grave after that day, I saluted it. I wanted to tell him I was sorry. I wish I had more common sense as a human at that time."
BentProp finally found the submerged plane in 2004.
"I was part of that trip," said Mr. Joyce. "My buddy and I were the first to lay eyes on it."
Although JPAC has not yet formally identified anyone from the crash site, Jimmie Doyle's wedding ring and dog tags were among the remains discovered inside the fuselage. Nancy Doyle has also given the BentProp team a letter from Jimmie indicating he had been transferred from tailgunner to nosegunner, which finally explained why the remains were found in the front part of the plane.
Among the most poignant moments in the film is footage of Tommy Doyle, who flew to Palau in 2005, diving on the wreck of his father's plane and poking his head inside.
He was 15 months old when his daddy shipped off to war.
"We had a little conversation," he says in the film after the dive. "Nobody's business, but we had a little conversation in there. We made contact."
Mr. Joyce was with him on the dive.
It's that kind of emotional resonance that brings Mr. Joyce back to Palau each year and gives "Last Flight Home" its power.
"They did not have a clear direction at the beginning [of shooting]," he said of the producers, "but they came to identify with the families that they interviewed."
The DVD is available at www.bentstarproject.org.
First Published October 12, 2008 12:00 am