By day, Dr. Patrick Scannon is an executive at a successful biotech company across the bay from San Francisco. But in his spare time, the 59-year-old bearded and bespectacled research scientist is the founder of BentProp, a group of like-minded volunteers dedicated to finding World War II aircraft lost over the remote Pacific islands of Palau. Scannon has hunted missing WWII aircraft for more than 10 years, and though the work is long, arduous and sometimes unsuccessful, he and the other members of BentProp have made some important discoveries.
To date, BentProp has found 26 American and 23 Japanese aircraft and, working with JPAC (the U.S. military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command), has helped locate and identify five sites containing the remains of 15 MIAs. For perspective, the U.S. lists 88,000 MIAs from conflicts around the globe; the majority of these (78,000) date from WWII. In the region around Palau where BentProp operates, more than 200 aircraft were lost during the war, approximately one-third of those with airmen who were subsequently designated MIA.
“Many planes went missing in that part of the Pacific,” Scannon explains during an interview in his office. “These men died trying to protect our country. I don’t want them to be forgotten. We are grateful. We want to say thank you.”
BentProp began as the result of a western Pacific trip that Scannon took in 1993 to dive on a Japanese ship sunk by U.S. Navy Grumman Avengers, including one flown by future president George H.W. Bush, in WWII’s closing months. The ship was sunk inside Palau’s barrier reef in 40 feet of water. Dan Bailey, an expert on the WWII shipwrecks of Truk and Palau, had already documented the wreck. Nevertheless, the trip made a strong impression on Scannon.
“Afterward, we asked the guide did he know of any other wrecks in the area,” Scannon recalls. “He started showing us all these World War II aircraft he didn’t know anything about. That’s when I had my epiphany. I thought it was wrong nobody knew about these planes. People had to have died. So I set out to correct that.”
When he returned to the United States, Scannon began researching the Pacific War and soon learned there had been multiple air campaigns over Palau, with many fierce battles. A few operations lasted days, some weeks, but when you added them all up, a couple of hundred aircraft had been shot down.
“They lost just about every aircraft in the Navy repertoire at that time,” Scannon explains, “including Marine Corsairs and TBM Navy Avengers, not to mention B-24s.”
As a scientist, Scannon wanted to take a systematic approach to finding WWII aircraft. However, he initially found the job more difficult than he’d anticipated.
“It took me a few years to figure out there’s no one source to go to,” Scannon says. “In the absence of data, it’s hard looking for aircraft.”
Nevertheless, Scannon spent three years visiting Palau searching for lost planes. However, after getting disoriented in a mangrove swamp on one such trip he realized “it wasn’t smart to go this alone.” This led to his forming a team of volunteers in 1999 that became involved in a year-round operation to find WWII aircraft missing as a result of air combat or operational failure.
“We try to build a complete list of what’s missing,” Scannon says about BentProp’s search for specific aircraft. “[But] it [still] takes anywhere from two to 10 years until we find a plane.”
BentProp uses a variety of sources to develop its target list, including after-action reports, bombing mission photographs and squadron reunions, as well as countless hours spent deep in the National Archives. Historians in Japan have even pitched in to help. But this sort of historical research is more like detective work than burying one’s nose in musty history books. Scannon says it’s the people of Palau who are BentProp’s best source for lost aircraft.
“We go from village to village and ask to speak with the elders,” he explains. “Many of them have died, but the ones still alive provide invaluable information.”
BentProp also works extensively with local fishermen who know Palau’s waters better than anyone. One such person, dive boat captain Joe Maldangesang, has proved to be BentProp’s most powerful ally. “Joe thought we were very odd at first,” Scannon says, smiling. “The majority of people he takes around go to popular dive sites. We were the only ones interested in finding old aircraft.”
BentProp has come to rely on Maldangesang as a member of its expedition team. With his excellent sense of direction and expert ability on both water and land, Maldangesang has helped BentProp volunteers find much of what they are looking for.
“Joe is like a GPS device, so we call him ‘JPS,’” Scannon says. “He has this incredible talent for navigation. Whether on the water or in the jungle, Joe can see and find things others cannot.” Nevertheless, he observes, “The aircraft are never where you think they are.”
At first, Palau’s inhabitants viewed BentProp suspiciously, thinking they were looking for a gold stash allegedly hidden by the Japanese at the end of the war. Now these suspicions are gone.
“People trust us, but we worked for hard for that trust,” Scannon says. “It’s not our country. We’re the strangers here. We need to be respectful.”
BentProp works in close cooperation with the Palauan government and submits regular reports of its findings each year. “We’re not always perfect,” Scannon admits, “but we always respond to making things better.”
As Scannon describes it, BentProp prepares diligently for each year’s mission. First, they typically spend four to five months consolidating the data gathered from past missions and previous research. By September, a draft 50-page mission proposal is completed and then finalized by December for forwarding to JPAC in Hawaii. In addition to keeping JPAC in the loop, BentProp also reports its findings to the U.S. Navy Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and multiple Palauan authorities.
BentProp conducts its search activities in February, when the weather in Palau is favorable. Each mission lasts approximately four weeks. The first week is spent paying courtesy calls on government officials and influential locals and establishing mission logistics. The following three weeks are devoted to intensive search efforts. The team members review findings at the end of each day. They also file daily mission reports on the project’s Web site. The final two days of each mission are reserved for wrap-up debriefing and reviewing their findings with local officials. But nothing beats a discovery.
In 2006, after six years of searching, BentProp located a Corsair that had been shot down and crashed deep inside the jungle. “You have to have a certain amount of fortitude to go into a mangrove jungle,” Scannon notes. “They are so dense it took us five hours to go 100 feet.” Fortunately, most people don’t have the determination required to salvage aircraft that have crashed in the jungle, so the Corsair was still there for BentProp to find, even if time and the initial impact had made the plane virtually unrecognizable.
“We take this job very seriously,” remarks Scannon. “We’re not just finding remains; we’re completing the historical record.”
Though BentProp does its best to identify missing aircraft when it finds them, team members don’t recover human remains. When BentProp finds a crash site with remains, it informs JPAC, which has more than 400 staff members devoted to recovering the remains of U.S. military personnel as well as the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world. JPAC then does the recovery.
“We discover, they recover,” Scannon says, summarizing BentProp’s relationship with JPAC. “We’re in constant contact with them.”
BentProp’s most spectacular find to date took almost 10 years to locate. It was an Army Air Forces B-24 that had been shot down and crashed inside Palau’s barrier reef. Scannon eventually found the silt-covered wreck in 40 feet of water. A recent 70-minute documentary titled Last Flight Home tells the moving story of BentProp’s search and identification of the B-24.
“We had given up on finding it,” Scannon recalls, “but we found bombing mission photographs in a Pennsylvania warehouse that showed a splash where the B-24 went down. That changed everything.”
Three crewmen managed to parachute out of the bomber (a navigator, a photographer and a bombardier) before it hit the ocean, but several men perished in the aircraft. BentProp located the aircraft in 2004 as well as the remains of the missing crewmen inside along with unexploded ammunition from .50-caliber machine guns. JPAC later recovered the remains and is using DNA testing among other means to identify the airmen.
When an MIA is successfully identified, BentProp sometimes plays a role in helping JPAC locate the crewmen’s family. “We have genealogists who so love what we do, they volunteer to help us find the families,” Scannon notes. It’s not always easy finding relatives more than six decades later, so BentProp’s genealogists use old newspapers and census reports, birth and death records and even out-of-date telephone directories to locate dispersed families. When BentProp locates a previous MIA’s relative, Scannon places a call.
“There’s almost a predictable cycle: disbelief, realization, accommodation,” he says about MIA families. “Once they get over the disbelief, it’s a really emotional moment.”
Scannon has discovered that the first generation of MIA relatives usually have come to terms with their loss even if they’ve been reluctant to talk about it with other family members. Regardless, he finds that MIAs are never forgotten no matter how reticent an immediate survivor may be. In Scannon’s experience, second-generation family members often maintain a surprisingly high degree of interest in the missing relative even though they may only have scanty information about what actually happened. “MIAs transcend generations,” Scannon reports. “There is no closure until the body is returned.”
JPAC holds a memorial ceremony for every recovered crewman either in Hawaii or Palau, and the remains are then flown back to the States on a C-130, proof of the U.S. military’s doctrine of no man left behind. An American flag used in the ceremony is also presented to family members.
“There’s a lot of thank-yous back and forth when a flag is given to the families,” Scannon says. “They thank us, and we thank them for their sacrifice. That’s our reward.”
Because BentProp interviews surviving veterans who knew the MIA, Scannon says he sometimes gets to know an airman’s personality, which helps him form a personal bond with the missing crew member. “I’m a scientist, and I try to use the same principles [when searching for aircraft],” he says. “I try to be objective…[but] there is undoubtedly an emotional component to all this.”
The two questions most frequently asked of Scannon are whether he lost a family member in WWII, and who pays for BentProp’s search and identification operations. Surprisingly, Scannon himself lost no family members in the war. However, it’s no surprise to hear that BentProp’s volunteers pay the cost of the search and identification missions out of their own pockets. This is very much in keeping with the self-funded nature of the project. The cost of each mission is somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, which is significant, but you never hear complaints from BentProp’s volunteers.
Each team member has his or her own reason for supporting BentProp’s efforts, but in Scannon’s case the reason is clear. “It’s not what we say, it’s what we do,” he remarks. “The United States has incredible values, and people have died for them. This is our way of recognizing that sacrifice.”
Scannon is a man of many accomplishments, though his slight frame and calm demeanor belie his many interests. A skydiver, scuba diver and spelunker as well as a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Scannon had also undertaken 10 hours of pilot training before deciding he didn’t have the time to commit to flying and still support BentProp. As a result, he made the decision to spend his spare time giving back to those families who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Once on Palau, BentProp’s search and recovery team uses a variety of technology and resources to locate missing aircraft. These include both American and Japanese maps from WWII as well as current U.S. Geological Survey maps. This sometimes causes problems, since some period maps use a different coordinate system than maps today and have to be “translated.” BentProp’s mission specialists also use a hand-held GPS device to identify precise locations, though their GPS systems often lose reception in the jungle because the overhead canopy is so thick.
Interestingly, BentProp relies on Google Earth to reconnoiter specific areas of Palau, since they’ve found it more reliable than other satellite imagery they’ve used. BentProp has also used magnetometers as well as sidescan sonar surveys to help locate missing aircraft, though with mixed results. BentProp teams carry a metal detector in the field to identify buried airplane remnants. But according to Scannon, the technology BentProp uses the most on Palau is the machete and word of mouth, which proves the best approach is sometimes the simplest.
With so many aircraft wrecks scattered throughout the South Pacific, some might question why BentProp concentrates on the islands of Palau. Why not New Guinea, Yap or any of the other islands that experienced significant air campaigns during the war? The short answer: strategic value and time.
Palau may seem to be in the middle of nowhere today, but during WWII it was a vital component of the Allies’ island-hopping strategy. Until 1944, there were 40,000 Japanese army and naval forces stationed on Palau, along with three airfields and several hundred aircraft. Palau also had a deep-water harbor well suited to naval operations, and it lies between the Philippines and Guam. As a result, securing Palau’s airfields was important to protecting General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines as well as supporting an Allied supply route in preparation for the bombing and invasion of Japan.
The United States began a relentless six-month bombing campaign against the Japanese military on Palau’s islands starting in March 1944 up through the land invasion, which began on September 15, 1944. One little-known fact is that the Japanese built out Palau’s extensive cave system (which still contains some remains of Japanese soldiers) for defensive purposes rather than meeting the enemy on the beach. This was five months before the Battle of Iwo Jima, demonstrating that Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi was by no means the first Japanese general to employ that tactic.
The second reason BentProp concentrates its efforts in and around the islands of Palau is because team members have already invested so much time and attention getting to know the inhabitants and their local surroundings. “The reason we’ve been effective is we’ve taken the time necessary to build relationships,” says Scannon. “It takes a long time to build trust and knowledge, and it would be wrong to throw that all away.”
The Republic of Palau did not become independent until 1980. Today the majority of its 20,000 inhabitants live on Koror, the former capital, though the republic itself is composed of a chain of 200 or so smaller islands. Palau’s population is generally Westernized, but the country’s economy remains modest, relying mostly on fishing, agriculture and tourism to generate income.
Since Palau is located in the tropics, it rains frequently there. Temperatures range from the 80s to high 90s in February, when BentProp conducts its missions, and the humidity is high. Dehydration is the number-one problem facing BentProp’s mission specialists—but there are also insects, snakes and insufficient information to deal with. Though the ocean temperature is a typically a balmy 84 degrees, Scannon wears a Lycra skin suit when he dives because jellyfish can also be a problem.
Palau has been occupied by many different countries over the course of its history. The English came first, followed by the Spaniards and the Germans. Palau was actually a German colony during the early 20th century, but in 1914 Japan seized the colony from Germany and was allowed to keep it at the end of World War I as part of war reparations.
In addition to the combat losses and MIAs the U.S. sustained in the islands during WWII, some American POWs were executed there by the Japanese. The documentary Last Flight Home depicts this dark side of Palau’s history by telling the story of 2nd Lt. Wallace F. Kaufman, an American POW who parachuted from his stricken B-24. Kaufman landed on Palau and was captured by the Japanese, who subsequently executed him in May 1945.
The documentary tracks Scannon’s search for Lieutenant Kaufman’s lost B-24 and his quest to discover the fate and final resting place of the captured airman. At one point in the film, Scannon travels to Japan to interview Tetsuji Katsuyama, a Japanese lieutenant who was stationed on Palau at the time. General Inoue, Katsuyama’s commanding officer, gave him the “honor” of executing the captured American flier, and Last Flight Home tells the hair-raising tale of what actually happened.
“Katsuyama came from a small farming community. He’d never even held a sword,” Scannon says, recalling the interview. “He had to obey his commanding general. He didn’t have a choice.”
The filmed interview is both powerful and shocking—especially when Katsuyama comes to describe how he beheaded the American flier. “It was an emotional moment for me,” Scannon admits—no less so because Katsuyama botched the execution, leaving the prisoner mortally wounded but still alive.
Later, Scannon revealed that Katsuyama was ordered by General Inoue to commit suicide, since the United States was about to invade the islands, and the general wanted to hide any evidence of POW executions. Scannon recalls what Katsuyama told him but did not appear in the film: “A friend of Katsuyama’s took him out in the jungle after his commanding officer ordered him to commit suicide and said, ‘You don’t need to kill yourself because you’re already dead.’ Then Katsuyama’s friend showed him the body of a dead Japanese soldier and helped him to switch clothes. It would have been a severe loss of face for Katsuyama not to commit suicide.”
An old man in the documentary, Katsuyama speaks regretfully of his own actions and admiringly of the courage and dignity displayed by the American flier before he was put to death. At the end of the war, the Japanese officer was arrested, tried for his war crimes and served seven years in Tokyo’s Sugamo prison before being pardoned.
Last Flight Home also tells the story of how BentProp located and helped identify the remains of airman Arthur Miller Sr., then made sure they were brought back to his son. Arthur Jr. hadn’t really known his father while growing up, and the documentary sequence of his visit to Palau to trace his father’s end is moving.
Another striking element of the documentary is authentic aerial combat footage that was filmed in and around the skies of Palau during the war. One sequence in particular that stands out shows a B-24 losing its port wing and plummeting out of sight. There is also spectacular color footage taken from a Corsair, as well as an SB2C Helldiver’s carrier takeoff filmed from the perspective of the plane’s tail.
Missing military aircraft aren’t the only thing BentProp discovers on Palau. “We do find these odd things,” Scannon says. “One time we were out in the jungle and I found a piece of luggage full of clothes. It had popped open and spread out [but] was no more than 10 years old.”
BentProp also found a Japanese urinal near some caves that team members nicknamed “the General’s urinal” because a luxury item like that would only have been used by someone of senior rank. BentProp searchers have discovered well-preserved Japanese helmets as well as unexploded ordnance, which they steer clear of for obvious reasons. In fact, BentProp’s volunteers are careful not to collect or disturb anything they find. As Scannon puts it, “Any artifacts, debris fields or ordnance we find, we leave alone. We want to be good guests of the country.”
When asked how he came up with the organization’s distinctive name and logo, Scannon recalls discovering a lost Corsair in 1999 with a similarly bent prop that stuck in his mind. The image later became the basis for both BentProp’s name and its damaged four-bladed logo.
BentProp’s volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds and include a retired F-18 pilot, a former Hollywood stuntman, a military historian, a computer geek and an active-duty Marine captain previously stationed in Iraq. Volunteers range in age from 21 to well into their 60s, but the most important credential for membership is the ability to bring value to the mission.
“Everyone has to have a skill,” says Scannon. “I’m an MD, and we have navigation officers as well as land and water safety officers.” You also have to have a high degree of tolerance for the jungle, heat and regular doses of disappointment.
BentProp has approximately 30 volunteers doing a variety of tasks. Some of the most active members include Dan O’Brien, Clem Major, Jennifer Krasny-Power, Reid Joyce, Flip Colmer and Val Thal. Potential volunteers are interviewed by phone and, if they make the initial cut, are introduced to other volunteers for consideration. BentProp is definitely not a one-man show.
“I attach a lot of importance to my team members,” Scannon says. “They contribute every bit as much as I do, and probably more.”
BentProp has inspired similar efforts in Yap and other western Pacific islands. Asked how long he plans to search for missing aircraft, Scannon responds: “I don’t have a retirement date, but I’d like to think as long as necessary. What we’re doing has a life beyond me…and will ultimately expand.”
In the meantime, Scannon remains committed to completing BentProp’s task of finding as many missing aircraft as possible. To date, he has visited Palau 15 times and completed 13 search missions, yet he is still hungry to locate what he considers two of the biggest unfound targets: the last of four B-24 bombers shot down along with eight crew members by a Japanese fighter, and another Corsair that crashed in the jungle and is likely to be a target in BentProp’s February 2008 mission. Though Scannon has a pretty good idea of where the Corsair crashed, BentProp’s search for missing aircraft continues to be an enormous challenge.
“There are still 40 to 50 potentially findable aircraft [around Palau],” he says. “But there’s a great deal of variability due to the unknowns. How many are really out there? We don’t know. We’re just going to have to keep looking.”
To learn more about the BentProp Project see www.bentprop.org. To make a tax-deductible nonprofit donation visit www.bentstarproject.org, or to order the Last Flight Home DVD visit www.lastflighthome.org. John J. Geoghegan is director of the Siloe Research Institute in Marin County, Calif., and writes frequently about aviation, science and underwater exploration. He last wrote for Aviation History about the airship USS Macon in the May issue.
This article by John J. Geoghegan was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Aviation History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!