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Originally published Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 12:11 AM

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‘Vanished’: the never-ending search for the lost men of WWII

In “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II,” Wil S. Hylton chronicles one tenacious effort to find the missing crew of a B-24 bomber, 11 men of the 73,000 servicemen who are still missing in action, almost seven decades after World War II’s end.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II’

by Wil S. Hylton

Riverhead, 272 pp., $27.95

Readers might be misled by the subtitle of “Vanished,” thinking that “The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II” refers to a comprehensive effort to find the 73,000 service members who disappeared in that war.

Reading the first chapter, they might be disappointed to learn that the book concentrates on an effort to discover what happened to just 11 men on one B-24 bomber shot down over Palau in the South Pacific in September 1944. Yet the story of the search for that one plane and its crew comes to represent what such efforts mean for all the families of those whose loss in battle is left unexplained.

And there are many such families. Author Wil S. Hylton notes that 83,000 U.S. service members have been classified as missing in action in the past century, 56,000 of them in the Pacific theater of World War II, a number equal to all of the U.S. military dead in Vietnam.

What makes Hylton’s book a remarkable achievement is his ability to connect his readers with those families, and as one of the searchers says, once that connection is made, “you know these people are waiting and hoping, and you start to wait and hope as well.”

Hylton does this by weaving together WWII military history, explanations of underwater recovery techniques, the missing airmen’s personal stories and a dramatic telling of the last moments of their lives.

What could be the least interesting thread — or the least important — are the details of the modern-day search for the bomber and its crew. Many efforts to find WWII wreckage have involved treasure hunters who did little to record the historical significance of their haphazard discoveries. The technical details of how underwater wreckage is located, explored and identified are well-explained by Hylton. How it is done is a story in itself, but not one with much humanity in it.

But Hylton adds humanity in abundance by telling the story of the search through Pat Scannon, a doctor and founder of a biotech company who has devoted years of his life and many resources to the effort to find the men who went down with the B-24.

Quite simply, Hylton gets inside Scannon’s head to explain his motives, his dedication to his family’s military history and ultimately, his sympathy for the “ambiguous grief” of the MIA community.

Hylton, a reporter and teacher of creative nonfiction, is not afraid to wring emotion from his array of sources: the letters the men wrote to their wives and parents, military reports, his own interviews with veterans and eyewitnesses to the 1944 action over Palau, postwar interrogations of the Japanese stationed on Palau, Scannon’s notes, combat photos and films.

The result is a book that leads the reader to the last page, eagerly waiting for some resolution, which few MIA families will ever get.

John B. Saul is an editor at The Seattle Times and has taught journalism and writing at four universities and colleges.

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