How many miles did you log while reporting this story, and how long did it take to complete the book?
It turned out that one missing airplane leads to all corners of the earth. I spent a total of four years searching for clues and answers, and traveled more than 60,000 miles. At one point, I joined an elite military team on a barge in the Pacific Ocean. At another, I trekked through the Micronesian jungle in search of a secret Japanese prison. I flew on the last working B-24 bomber, scuba dived on classified sites in the Palau islands, and even visited the military's human remains recovery laboratory in Hawaii, where I stood in a room filled with skeletons of American soldiers who died half a century ago. So there were a lot of miles, but never a dull moment.
What, for you, was the most difficult aspect of the story to comprehend and share with readers?
It's very difficult for outsiders to understand the grief that haunts families of the missing. When there's no body to bury, no formal cause of death, and no explanation of what happened, the loss is hard to process or accept. In many cases, the families spend decades holding on to the possibility that the person might still be alive. This is true of soldiers in the same way it would be true of a missing child. Maybe the guy is trapped somewhere, or in a secret prison, or lost, or maybe he has amnesia. Very few MIA families have not given these questions some thought. And without giving away too much, I'll say that sometimes this turns out to be true-missing soldiers sometimes do emerge from the jungle after decades have passed; it happened in Vietnam just this summer. For families of the missing, it becomes and act of hope, but it's also deeply painful and corrosive to the healing process. As I got to know the families of this particular missing crew, I realized that each of them was still trying to come to terms with their loss from 70 years ago, and they had a lot of valid questions about what really happened, and how many of the men survived.
There are many characters/players in Vanished. Who impressed you the most? Why?
A doctor named Pat Scannon is probably the most extraordinary person I've ever interviewed. In a sense, he's the central figure in this story, but in another sense, he has no business being in the story at all. What I mean is, Scannon had no personal connection to this plane whatsoever. He didn't know anything about the islands where it disappeared, and didn't know any of the affected families. He just learned about the plane by chance and, for reasons that even he didn't understand, he felt compelled to find the plane and solve the mystery. He spent a decade of his life and tens of thousands of dollars wading through swamps and scouring the bottom of the Palau lagoon. As a writer, I'm always drawn to a story of obsession, but it's made all the more powerful when the obsession has absolutely no apparent cause. In Scannon's case, it became a puzzle for me to try to understand what was driving him, why he was so determined to find this one plane. I can't claim to have figured him, out, and I'm not sure anyone could. But the more I got to know him, the more I began to discover these deeper impulses within him that stemmed from his own past.
What, if any, Baltimore connections did you come across? (I understand that might be a stretch.)
One of the other key figures in this story is actually a guy from Crofton. His name is Mark Swank, and he's one of these guys who will admit to working for the government before quickly changing the subject. His background is in military intelligence, and on the side, he happens to own a great little dive bar called the Crofton Cantina. About five years ago, Swank heard about Scannon's search and he offered to help. He's spent thousands and thousands of hours since then, collecting archival records at the National Archives and scouring them for clues. Even when he's deployed to war zones around the world, he stays up at night reading these World War II documents for signs of the missing plane. Again, I don't want to give too much away, but by the end of the book readers will understand the theory Swank developed, which turned out to be right. If any Bmag readers happen into the Crofton Cantina, I'd encourage them to buy Swank a beer.
In looking closely at the WWII generation, what surprised you the most about the period and/or people?
It's startling when you realize how much pain and anguish still reside in World War II families. As a culture, we really celebrate this generation, and for good reason. They brought us out of the Great Depression, though the Second World War, and into a period of unprecedented growth and stability. But in the process of honoring them, I think we often lose sight of how much they lost, sacrificed, and suffered. This is a generation eviscerated in its prime, riven by war, its men deeply traumatized on brutal battlefields, and its families still wracked by the lasting legacy of death. To really appreciate what this generation achieved, we can begin with an acknowledgment of all they lost.
At what point did you realize this book was as much about the living as the dead?
A few days after my first trip to the Pacific, I flew out to Lubbock, Texas, and drove down to the little town of Snyder to meet a man who lost his father on this plane. Tommy Doyle is the picture of a West Texas football coach. He's in his 60s, tall and muscular, with a rich baritone voice and a buzz cut of white hair. He used to be a local football star himself and for thirty years he's been the Coach Taylor of this town, shaping boys into men if you will. We sat together in his living room to talk about his dad's disappearance, and it took all of five minutes before the big, powerful guy broke down completely, the tears streaming down his face in an unrelenting tide. Six decades later, all this pain was still as fresh as the day his dad went missing. That's the moment I realized that this is not a history book-for tens of thousands of American MIA families, this loss is very much in the present.
Considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what can we learn from Vanished?
I have a lot of friends in the military, many of them serving overseas, and this work means the world to them. For a modern soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine heading off to war, the knowledge that their country will never let them disappear, will find them and bring them home, no matter what, makes the daily face of combat a little less grim. So this is not just about keeping a promise to the families; it's also about certifying the promise we make to our troops today.
You mention eating bat soup. What does bat soup taste like?
At first I couldn't even process the taste! I was too shocked by the appearance. I'd been imagining some sort of chowdery dish with a few flecks of meat. Not quite. It's just a dead bat floating in broth. That's it. You look down and there's a soggy little carcass tangled up in its broken wings, and the mouth is yawning open and the eyes are bugging out, and it doesn't exactly inspire hunger. Then you have to lift it from the bowl and rip off the legs and suck the skin off the wings, and you jam your thumbs into the abdomen to pull out the guts, and you pry open the jaws to suck out the brains-and I mean, I'm from Baltimore, so I'm used to shredding the body of a sea insect, but when it's a soft-bodied little furry mammal that looks like a drowned rat, it's different. Once you get past the nasty, the flavor is fine. The brain is actually pretty good. Eventually I found myself finishing other people's. But it took some getting used to.
Wil Hylton will read from Vanished at the Enoch Pratt Library’s Central branch on November 7.