I saw a remarkable documentary last night called “Last Flight Home.” The film detailed the efforts of a group called the “BentProp Project,” that searched for lost Word War II planes, and their MIA crew, in the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific. The group had discovered planes in both the water and in the jungle. The group retrieved serial numbers from the wreckage sites and had been able to identify individual planes through military records of known missing aircraft and crewman. Amazingly, the team was able to bring closure to several families, who had only known for 60+ years, that their loved one was MIA.
In the film, some of the identified serviceman were remembered by their living siblings, who retold happy stories from their youth, as well as the pain of “never knowing” the fate of their brother. Nieces and nephews spoke of a “lost uncle,” that had left an unspeakable void in the family tree. Most touchingly, two men (not related) shared the pain of growing up without their fathers.
One of the men had grown up idolizing his father. The other man had known that his father may have been of questionable character, and had not pursued more facts. In both cases, however, the men had little information in which to know their fathers at all, relying on the stories from their mothers, letters, and boxes of wartime keepsakes. The discovered wreckage in Palau couldn’t help characterize their paternity any further, but it could help close the chapter on the mystery surrounding their WWII MIA airman fathers. Their memoir, at the very least, could have a sliver of resolution.
Still, 70K+ soldiers remain MIA from World War II. While the Bent Prop Project has found a handful of planes, many more families will likely never learn the fate of their MIA soldier. My uncle (my mother’s brother), Ernest O. Kelley, was one of the serviceman reported MIA in World War II. Ernest was stationed in the Philippines. He survived the infamous Bataan Death March, but only to become a POW. According to Ernest’s friend and POW survivor, Howard Mann, Ernest was determined to escape the deplorable conditions of the prison camp. The men planned to escape together, but Howard became too sick to go. Ernest left the camp without his friend. Howard reported, after the war, that he was sure that Ernest had escaped successfully. The Japanese beheaded prisoners who had escaped and been caught. Their heads were left on posts in the POW camp to deter further escape attempts. Ernest’s head had never appeared.
By 1946 the army declared Ernest as dead. A post-war investigation concluded that he had hidden in a Philippine village after his POW camp escape, but had left upon the approach of Japanese soldiers. What happened to him after that? My mother always said that it was likely Ernest died of malaria in the jungle, but that was only one possibility of many. Ernest was simply MIA.
Like the niece who told of her “lost uncle” in “The Last Flight Home,” I can identify with the agonizing loss of an MIA soldier and its impact on a family. My grandmother always held out hope that her oldest son was alive. My mother was more pragmatic, but spoke of her brother often to keep his memory alive. My grandmother and mother have both passed now, but I carry the memory of Ernest for them. Someday, the family may know what happened to Ernest. It may only take a different form of the BentProp Project.