Search for Lost Bomber Enlists Underwater Robot
Every year, Pat Scannon, a physician and biotech entrepreneur, travels across the Pacific to search on and around Palau for planes downed during World War II. Scannon isn’t really a treasure hunter, or a scuba-diving enthusiast. He’s on a mission: to provide closure to American families who never learned the fates of men gone nearly seven decades.
Survivors of men missing in action in some ways have it worse than families who know loved ones died, Scannon says. “For MIA families, there is no grieving process. There is no finality. We know wives who were widowed and had an opportunity to remarry and didn’t. They thought their husbands would come out of the wilderness one day, and they never did.”
For 20 years Scannon has scoured the seabed off Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines in the Pacific Ocean, for the wreckage of aircraft and the remains of airmen lost in the air battle that preceded the brutal fighting at Peleliu. He has pored over maps and flight reports, interviewed tribal elders, and poked around coral reefs.
Notable successes have followed. In 1993, Scannon and colleagues found a Japanese trawler sunk by a young American torpedo plane pilot named George H. W. Bush; in 2004, after a decade of searching, they found the remains of a B-24 off Palau, enabling them to bring an end to the uncertainty experienced by lost crewmen’s families. One Texas man had lived for years with the torment of rumors that his missing father had abandoned his family and was still alive; the discovery of his remains confirmed he had gone down with the plane.
But one wreck has proved more elusive. The B-24 Liberator, Serial No. 44-40596, went down on August 25, 1944, its crew lost, including two airmen who bailed out and were captured and presumably executed by the Japanese. To augment his search for “596,” Scannon now has a tool not available for his previous searches: a robot. His non-profit, BentProp, has teamed with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the University of Delaware. Funded in part by the Pentagon, they are using an autonomous underwater vehicle called a REMUS—one of the Remote Environmental Monitoring Units developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
The robot skims 10 feet above the seabed, using sound waves to map areas that Scannon’s team analyzes. A spring expedition yielded 200 area maps now undergoing scrutiny. Scannon says scuba divers would have needed 20 years to go over the ground Remus covered in two weeks. The project, recently featured in Popular Science, is the subject of Vanished, a book by journalist Wil S. Hylton published in November.
Postwar Odyssey Brings Signet Ring Home
Events brought a World War II aviator’s ring back to his family after 68 years, but David Cox Jr. has yet to wear it. The ring, which stays in a safe deposit box except for special occasions, belonged to his father, a B-17 pilot who died in 1994. Starving in a German POW camp in January 1945, David Cox Sr. traded the ring for chocolate bars. He never saw it again. Now, thanks to a dinner decades later in Bavaria and search engine optimization, the ring has returned home to North Carolina.
When Cox graduated from flight school in 1942, his parents gave him a gold signet bearing a propeller and wings and engraved, “Mother & Father to David C. Cox Greensboro, NC.” He wore the ring as he flew B-17s over Europe, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross in May 1943 for bringing a burning Fortress back to England. That July, over Kassel, Germany, his plane was shot down. Cox, who was on his 26th mission, bailed out, landed in a rose garden, and was taken prisoner.
At first Cox was held at Stalag Luft III, scene of Allied POWs’ “Great Escape,” but in January 1945, he and other prisoners were marched through snow to another POW camp near Munich, where they subsisted on soup and weevil-ridden bread. “He had a pretty rough time of it in the end,” David Jr. says. “The Germans had pretty much quit caring for them. He told us about the march and how cold it was and how some guys didn’t make it…. He just got real, real hungry.” When an Italian prisoner offered him a couple of chocolate bars in exchange for the ring, David Cox made the trade.
Liberated in April 1945, Cox returned to North Carolina and started a business. He and his wife raised three children. But he missed that pinkie ring so much he had a duplicate made. Meanwhile the Italian who had taken it in trade for candy bars had passed the ring to a Soviet soldier who gave the piece of jewelry, apparently to pay for lodging, to a Hungarian family living in what is now Serbia.
In 1971, one of those Hungarians, artist Martin Kiss, moved to Germany. He took the ring, which he often wore, wondering about the Americans named in the inscription. In 2012, Kiss—now a resident of Hohenberg, a village in Bavaria—met new neighbors, Mark and Mindy Turner, who were from Kansas. He invited them to dinner. After the meal, he brought out the ring and asked their help tracing its ownership. An Internet search turned up a college thesis by David Cox’s grand daughter’s husband, Norwood McDowell. The paper, “War Eagles: A Bird’s Eye View of 305th Bomb Group and the Eighth Air Force,” mentions the transaction involving the ring and the chocolate bars.
Turner e-mailed a picture of the ring to McDowell, who forwarded it to David Cox Jr. Soon the piece of jewelry was en route to North Carolina. Kiss refused Cox Jr.’s offer of reimbursement for the ring and the cost of shipping it. “I offered, but he would take no money,” David Cox Jr. says. “I hope one day I’ll have the opportunity to meet him.”
But though he’s glad to have it back in family hands, the younger Cox refuses to wear his late father’s trasured ring. “I don’t feel entitled. It’s his,” he says. “He paid a very heavy price, and it showed. I think about how much he would have liked to have opened that box.”
The Brides Wore Field Grey
Step aside, Stepford Wives.
Documents found by reporter Claudia Becker of Germany’s Die Welt newspaper shed light on a wartime antecedent of the ’70s-era cinematic creep show: Nazi bride schools designed to transform office girls into dutiful spouses who would enthusiastically serve their men, breed little Nazis—and worship Adolf Hitler.
A rulebook found in the archives decreed that young women had to master “washing, cooking, childcare and home design” before they could wed SS men or other specimens of the Nazi elite. Training sessions at the Reichsbräuteschule—Reich Bride Schools—emphasized the role of women as “sustainers of the race.”
Graduates had to gain “special knowledge of race and genetics” to qualify for a certificate entitling them to wed in a neo-pagan ritual at which they vowed to raise their offspring as Nazis. The six-week course cost about $640 at today’s exchange rates. A 1940 issue of the Nazi women’s magazine Frauen Warte shows contented maidens at a bride school in Husbake, Germany, feeding cows, gardening, hiking, and sewing.
In 1940 at least nine bride schools operated in Berlin alone, with more elsewhere in Germany. Enrollment shrank as the Reich recruited ever more women to work in war plants, but bride schools are believed to have continued to spread the word until as late as May 1944
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.