Just before dawn on September 10, 1944, the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise came to life, as ground crews readied a line of airplanes for battle. The day’s mission was critical: to hit Japanese positions and ships in advance of an amphibious invasion of Peleliu, an island in the archipelago of Palau some 50 miles to the west. At approximately 5:30 a.m., the first contingent of planes taxied and took flight. Then crews moved the next group into position on deck: 12 fighter planes known as Hellcats, five heavy bombers called Helldivers and seven even larger bombers known as Avengers.

The Avenger, nicknamed the Pregnant Beast, was the heaviest single-engine aircraft produced by any nation during World War II. Its crew members grimly joked that it weighed so much that it could fall faster than it flew. But what it lacked in speed it made up for in destructive power: Its bomb bay held a one-ton torpedo or four 500-pound bombs, enough ordnance to sink a Japanese aircraft carrier.

Avenger No. 17018 was among the second wave. Its pilot, Lieutenant Jay Ross Manown Jr., was later described in a postwar account as a “bold and intrepid” aviator. Born and raised in West Virginia, Manown had worked as a flight instructor for the Navy Air Reserve before entering combat service after the attack on Pearl Harbor. A decorated pilot, he’d already flown combat missions throughout the Pacific for more than two years. Now, at age 26, he served as his squadron’s second-in-command.

As Manown clambered onto the wing and wedged his thin frame into the cockpit, his two crew members entered a door on the side of the plane. Anthony Di Petta, the gunner, went first, squeezing into a tiny glass turret toward the rear that housed a .50-caliber machine gun. Wilbur Mitts, the radioman and navigator, went last, closing the door behind him and taking up his perch in the dark belly of the beast. Though they could not see each other, the three men probably chattered on the intercom system while running through their final pre-flight checks.

The planes took off at approximately 7:30 a.m. local time. Once airborne, they fell into formation and headed west. Visibility was reasonably good, a mix of sun and clouds. As the planes approached their targets—ground installations on Malakal Island and ships in the nearby harbor—a Japanese freighter came clearly into view.

Battlefield; airplane; telegram
Clockwise from above: Manown’s mission was to attack Japanese positions on the island of Malakal in advance of an amphibious assault to take a critical airfield on nearby Peleliu Island. The crew of the bomber, known as an Avenger, from left to right: turret gunner Anthony Di Petta; Manown; radioman and navigator Wilbur Mitts; when the plane was shot down, the crewmen were deemed missing and soon presumed dead. A telegram informing Wilbur Mitts’ family of his disappearance. LOC; Courtesy of the Mitts and Di Petta Families; Brian Frank

Manown and three other Avengers began to descend, intending to hit the ship. Suddenly, antiaircraft fire erupted from multiple emplacements in the hills around the harbor. Moments later, a fiery blast tore through the underside of Manown’s plane. A wing and rudder snapped off, sending the plane into what a pilot aboard a nearby aircraft later described as a violent spin. Within perhaps 10 or 12 seconds, Manown’s plane—now a meteor trailing fire, smoke and metal—hit the water.

And then it disappeared, swallowed by the sea.

When Manown’s plane went down that morning, it was traveling at least 300 miles an hour. If anybody inside had survived the initial hit, they would have had little time to react, much less to escape. Moreover, nobody aboard the other planes nearby had seen parachutes. Without evidence that the crew might have survived, the Navy declared Manown and his crew “missing” and “presumed dead”—three men among upward of 80,000 American service members listed as missing in action after the war was over. Like others consigned to this category, Manown and his crew were understood not to be alive, but they were not declared dead, either. And unless their remains were somehow found, there would be no formal recognition of their demise—no bodies to prepare for burial, no funerals to attend, no graves to visit.

But the United States has long been exceptional in the resources it devotes to locating the remains of fallen soldiers. The practice dates to the Civil War, when the War Department instructed the office of the quartermaster general of the Union Army to mark temporary resting places of the fallen in anticipation of a formal burial. By the time the United States entered World War I, in 1917, forensic investigative methods had advanced, and dog tags had been introduced to help with identification. The same year, the federal government created the Graves Registration Service, dedicated to finding, identifying and, in some cases, repatriating those who had died far from home.

A U.S. military map included in a declassified after-action report describing the Battle of Peleliu.
A U.S. military map included in a declassified after-action report describing the Battle of Peleliu. Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library
A ceremony in Palau honoring the Avenger’s crew. A flyover of F-35s followed the route of Manown’s final flight, symbolically completing the mission.
A ceremony in Palau honoring the Avenger’s crew. A flyover of F-35s followed the route of Manown’s final flight, symbolically completing the mission. Christopher Perez
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The ship and its planes, including Manown’s, downed 911 enemy planes, sank 71 ships and damaged 192 more.
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The ship and its planes, including Manown’s, downed 911 enemy planes, sank 71 ships and damaged 192 more. Niday Pictures Library / Alamy

The service accompanied soldiers on the front lines during World War II, burying the dead and marking their graves so they might be identified and reburied at a later date. It continued its work after the war, sending platoons of mortuary specialists to battlefields around the world, including Palau. For months, teams canvassed the islands. Though most of their efforts focused on exhuming documented graves for reburial at home or abroad, they also searched for service members who went missing, including crews from dozens of downed planes. Most remained at large, however, and the military ultimately concluded that many of the missing—including Manown, Di Petta and Mitts—were “non-recoverable.”

Patrick Scannon was born in 1947, the same year the military abandoned its search for Manown’s plane. A soft-spoken, bespectacled, bearded man who could easily pass for a minister or professor, Scannon is the founder of Project Recover, a California-based nonprofit devoted to locating and recovering the remains of America’s MIAs.

Patrick Scannon
Patrick Scannon, founder of Project Recover. Christopher Perez

Scannon’s quest for missing pilots has its roots in his childhood as an Army brat, when he would spend afternoons and weekends in military base libraries, devouring books about aviation. “I would sit there for hours studying the planes,” he recalls.

Adrift after high school, he enrolled at the University of Georgia to study chemistry. He quickly distinguished himself, and he went on to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and a doctor of medicine from the Medical College of Georgia. Then he returned to California, where in 1981 he founded Xoma, an early biotech firm.

As the company prospered, Scannon took up adventurous hobbies, including scuba diving and later skydiving. In 1993, he and his wife tagged along on a dive trip to Palau organized by a co-worker. Near the end of the trip, a local diving guide brought the couple to see the wing of an airplane in shallow water. “I saw the rounded tip and realized the only thing it could be was a B-24,” he said, referring to the famed American bomber. “From the time I saw the wing and jumped into the water, my life was different. I knew I had to do something about this. Where’s the rest of the plane? Where’s the crew?”

Though he dutifully returned to work—he retired as Xoma’s chief scientific officer in 2016—he became obsessed with finding planes and missing airmen, dedicating his spare time to the effort. He decided to focus his efforts where he had that life-changing experience: Palau. “There was something about the place that went beyond the natural beauty,” he says. “I couldn’t believe a place so beautiful had been the subject of such violence.”

Scannon began visiting government archives, pulling military action reports and other documents about lost aircraft. Then he returned to Palau, only to get lost in a mangrove swamp looking for a missing plane. Chastened, he sought out local guides, eventually hiring Joe Maldangesang. The pair became close friends, with Maldangesang playing the role of translator and ambassador, setting up interviews with eyewitnesses who had seen planes go down decades earlier.

As Scannon’s trips to Palau continued, he began to attract a group of like-minded volunteers, many of them fellow skydivers who came to share his passion for finding MIAs. One was Dan O’Brien, a hard-driving champion skydiver and former stuntman who now serves as Project Recover’s chief financial officer and logistics guru. “The people who are drawn to this kind of work tend to be a bit obsessive,” O’Brien told me.

Scannon, O’Brien and a small circle of friends soon formed a nonprofit called the BentProp Project, the precursor to Project Recover, and began sending detailed reports of their field expeditions to the Graves Registration Service’s successor agency, now known as the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA. BentProp teams found upward of 50 foreign and American planes on land and underwater, accounting for 26 American service members missing in action, but Scannon’s archival research revealed many more planes at large. He was coming to understand that tracking down MIAs takes time. “It’s a long game,” he says. “It’s a game of perseverance more than anything else.”

In 2003, an American expat who spent his days diving in Palau offhandedly mentioned to Scannon that he’d seen an aircraft wing in a small lagoon north of Malakal Harbor. Excited, Scannon and other team members dove to the site, where they found the largely intact wing of an Avenger. But which Avenger? Four such planes were known to have gone down in that general area, including Manown’s.

During the next few years, BentProp teams surveyed the jungle-covered islands surrounding the lagoon. As they expanded their search, they began finding other airplane parts: a tail section, a rudder and swatches of the plane’s aluminum skin. None of the pieces pointed to a specific plane, but as the team plotted the parts on a topographical map, they began to form a distinctive debris field just east of Malakal Harbor that increasingly pointed to only one plane: Manown’s. Still, the plane proved extraordinarily elusive, even after BentProp divers scoured the harbor. Stymied by low visibility, they turned up nothing. “It was like diving in milk,” Scannon recalls.

One day, in 2012, while visiting Palau’s Coral Reef Research Foundation, a frequent Scannon hangout, he and other team members struck up a conversation with two other visitors, marine scientists named Mark Moline, now at the University of Delaware, and Eric Terrill, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The group quickly agreed to collaborate. “They fell in love with our mission,” Scannon says. “We fell in love with their tools”—namely, autonomous underwater vehicles.

On the morning of March 17, 2015, the BentProp team and the two scientists eased a yellow-and-black torpedo-shaped drone into the water. Programmed to cross back and forth across the harbor, as if mowing an underwater lawn, it soon vanished into the depths. A single light pulsed at regular intervals as a sonar system scanned the seafloor.

Nearly half a mile from the lagoon that held the plane’s missing wing, at a depth of 116 feet, the sonar captured the shadowy but unmistakable image of a bent propeller. Then it found tangled piles of metal: landing gear, a crumpled fuselage, an engine block.

After 70 years, Manown’s plane had finally been found.

It took four more years, but the first shot at recovering Manown and his crew went to a contractor called Ships of Discovery, which dove to the site in 2019—a qualified success, as the expedition turned up some human remains and personal effects. Two years later, DPAA hired Scannon and his organization—now renamed Project Recover, reflecting its growing ambitions and new scientific partnerships—to return to the wreck site. That mission also yielded human remains. Remarkably, DNA testing of bones and teeth gathered to that point conclusively identified two of the plane’s crew members: Anthony Di Petta and Wilbur Mitts, whose families were notified of their discovery in early 2023. But still there was no trace of Manown. Some areas of the underwater debris field remained untouched, however, so this past summer Project Recover returned to the site for a three-week operation in the hopes of finding the pilot and bringing him home.

The weather on the morning of July 9, 2023, is hot, sticky and sunny, the sky speckled with scattered clouds. The sheltered expanse of Malakal Harbor is ringed by the Chelbacheb, or Rock Islands, dozens of small limestone and coral mounds topped with dense jungle foliage. Small lagoons, some quite deep, are scattered in the interstices of these formations. There is little evidence of human habitation, though the ruins of Japanese defenses and fortifications are still visible on some of the larger islands, a common sight in Palau.

The barge
The barge used by Project Recover and its affiliated team members, anchored precisely above the wreckage. Christopher Perez

More than a dozen expedition team members board a giant rusty steel barge, which is then towed along the coast, eventually stopping precisely above the wreckage of Manown’s Avenger out in the harbor. As the tug crews lay cables anchoring the barge in place, Project Recover members get to work in the morning sun. The hulking vessel, the width of a basketball court and one-and-a-half times as long, has an enormous metal ramp at one end where a stream of motorboats come and go, loaded with members of the recovery team, equipment and food.

The mission’s divers work for Legion Undersea Services, a commercial outfit that often collaborates with Project Recover; indeed, many of Legion’s divers are longtime members of Project Recover, including its founders, Nick Zaborski and John Marsack. Both are former chief Navy divers who worked in Special Operations. Their team of six younger men, mostly ex-Navy as well, bring particular skills. One has extensive experience disarming unexploded ordnance; another, a competitive free diver, can hold his breath for over seven minutes, a handy talent if something goes wrong.

Each of the ex-Navy divers confirms the stereotype about swearing sailors, but Marsack shines in this department, knitting expletives into a kind of profane poetry as he merrily directs the divers handling the electrical cables, air hoses, oxygen cylinders and video monitors that make up the team’s version of mission control. A decompression chamber, peeking out of a nearby shipping container, serves as a reminder that putting in long days at depths of more than 100 feet is not without risks.

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This article is a selection from the March 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

John Marsack, of Legion Undersea Services, holding newly recovered plane parts, including Manown’s control stick— a significant discovery.
John Marsack, of Legion Undersea Services, holding newly recovered plane parts, including Manown’s control stick—a significant discovery. Christopher Perez

Divers bound for the bottom don heavy work pants, thick shirts or coats, plus boots and gloves to protect them from the jagged tangles of metal below. They look as though they’re ready for serious yardwork—until they’re fitted with the helmet. The contraption, which weighs more than 30 pounds, requires two men to lower it carefully onto the diver’s head. When the fitting is complete, only a diver’s eyes, cheeks and a bit of forehead are visible. A pair of antennae-like protuberances—a light and a video camera—create a bug-like effect, as do the air supply lines and communication cables that sprout from the helmet.

The divers go through their final safety checks under the direction of Zaborski, a laconic man whose self-effacing demeanor belies years spent as a Navy diver. When the divers are ready, Zaborski walks to the top of the ramp and signals to a man stationed on a dock floating in the water below. This is Mike Raible, who runs the pump system used to vacuum debris off the seafloor in the hopes of collecting pertinent artifacts—parts of the plane, personal effects, human remains. Raible, nodding, fires up two generators, and the pumps come online, filling what look like fire hoses that run to the seafloor below.

Though Raible is pushing 70, has four missing fingers and appears to subsist on cigarettes and coffee, he nimbly navigates the piles of equipment with the grace of a much younger man. He has lived an active life, working as a gold dredger, skydiving instructor and parachute tester; he’s jumped out of so many planes that he’s spent the cumulative equivalent of nine full days in free-fall. He is used to things going wrong, but the opening days of the mission left him scrambling after he discovered that saltwater corrosion had taken a toll on the pumps. This morning, though, he’s kludged together a workaround after temporarily plugging up the pump’s discharge port. As the machines roar to life, he holds up a clenched fist in victory, revealing a tattoo that reads “Death Before Dishonor.” He gives the thumbs up, shouting, “We’re live!” Then, sotto voce: “I need a cigarette.”

Manown’s plane was finally located in 2015. Two subsequent expeditions failed to recover the pilot’s remains. In July 2023, the nonprofit Project Recover returned for a third attempt. Clockwise from top: the wreckage of the plane on the seafloor, at a dep
Manown’s plane was finally located in 2015. Two subsequent expeditions failed to recover the pilot’s remains. In July 2023, the nonprofit Project Recover returned for a third attempt. Clockwise from top: the wreckage of the plane on the seafloor, at a depth of 116 feet; a diver with contractor Legion Undersea Services after recovery operations at the bottom; at the end of a dive, a participant ascends to a decompression stop 30 feet from the surface. Christopher Perez

Back on deck, Zaborski gives the go-ahead, and two divers jump into the water and begin rappelling down a cable to the wreck below. They proceed under the supervision of Mickaila “M.J.” Johnston, an active-duty Navy doctor who specializes in dive medicine. Johnston, who describes himself as “the second-best doctor on this mission”—a winking nod to Scannon’s elder-statesman status—remains at his station, sentinel-like, for the duration of the dive, periodically inspecting the air hoses and other equipment.

The divers soon vanish from sight, but Zaborski tracks their movements on video feeds that play on a pair of monitors. One is set up in the dive station, where Zaborski, seated at two folding tables covered with equipment that looks like a music studio mix deck, monitors the air supply and power, periodically issuing updates over the intercom system. Thanks to a microphone and headset inside each helmet, the divers can communicate with everyone up on the surface. They can even listen to music.

The other video monitor is located in a shipping container set amidships. This is the makeshift office of Svenja Weise and Anthony Burgess, Project Recover team members who run the actual excavation. Weise, a German-born forensics specialist, began her career as an archaeologist, but early work on an Iron Age site containing cremated skeletal remains changed her life. “After that,” she tells me, “I was hooked on bones.” That even small skeletal fragments could be used to reconstruct an individual’s life and death awed her. After researching medieval-era skeletons, Weise went to work for the Danish government, serving as a kind of forensics first responder any time archaeological excavations turned up human remains. She met Scannon in 2022, when Project Recover excavated a World War II crash site off the Danish coast. When Scannon asked her to join the Manown mission, she couldn’t resist.

Burgess, also from Europe, speaks with a charming if unplaceable accent, having grown up in both England and Malta. He met Scannon when Project Recover came to excavate another World War II crash site in the Mediterranean. At the time, Burgess was working on his doctorate in archaeology—fittingly specializing in the underwater excavation of plane crashes. Much as Weise can see a bone fragment and immediately identify it, Burgess can look at a twisted bit of metal brought up from the bottom and give a good guess as to its original placement and function.

Archaeologist Anthony Burgess examines parts of the wreck.
Archaeologist Anthony Burgess examines parts of the wreck. Christopher Perez
Archaeologist and forensic anthropologist Svenja Weise, an expert in identifying skeletal remains.
Archaeologist and forensic anthropologist Svenja Weise, an expert in identifying skeletal remains. Christopher Perez
A diver with the expedition prepares to descend to the seafloor for excavations. Although the water at bottom is a balmy 83 degrees, divers must wear heavy suits to protect themselves from the jagged metal of the wreckage. Their helmets alone weigh more t
A diver with the expedition prepares to descend to the seafloor for excavations. Although the water at bottom is a balmy 83 degrees, divers must wear heavy suits to protect themselves from the jagged metal of the wreckage. Their helmets alone weigh more than 30 pounds.
  Christopher Perez

Now the pair sits at a folding table covered in diagrams of the debris field, alongside an Avenger operating manual and a hot plate for making coffee. A large photograph of Manown and his crew, mounted on posterboard, leans against the wall. Weise and Burgess, joined by Scannon, sit quietly watching the video monitor as the divers reach bottom. The sound of heavy breathing, captured by the microphones in each helmet, fills the office, occasionally punctuated by complaints about the visibility. The divers pick up the nozzles of large hoses powered by the pump and begin vacuuming the sand, shells and other small items, which are sucked up and deposited into an enormous metal mesh basket sitting nearby on the ocean floor. Anything that won’t fit into the hose gets put into another basket. Occasionally, Weise instructs the divers to examine something she sees on the display.

On the seafloor, the water is a comfortable 83 degrees. Up above, the barge bakes in the sun, radiating heat and raising temperatures to dangerous levels. Dehydration is a constant threat, and Scannon, dressed in lightweight pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap, with a red bandana tied around his neck, walks around the barge, gently reminding people to drink plenty from coolers filled with water and Gatorade.

Long periods of tedium are interrupted by fleeting moments of excitement. This is true for the divers no less than for anyone else. After spending time on the bottom, they ascend in stages to minimize the risk of getting the bends. At 30 feet below the surface, they stop and hang on to the cable for a five-minute decompression stop. Then they ascend to 20 feet and take a seat on a yellow metal platform that hangs off the barge. They’ll sit there for more than half an hour. They pass the time chatting with each other and listening to hard rock. As the divers sit on the platform, their legs dangling over the edge, the unmistakable opening guitar riff of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasts from the monitor speakers. The video feed confirms that the divers are rocking out at the second decompression stop, nodding in time with the music.

One afternoon a week later, toward day’s end, a large crane reels up the first recovery basket of the mission, steering it to a soft landing on the back of the barge. The team members swarm around it, peering intently at the contents: large, twisted pieces of metal, some scorched and warped by fire, and several mysterious sections of black rubber.

One by one, the artifacts come out, gently cradled and placed on a tarp. The black rubber turns out to be swaths of the fuel bladder, its white stenciled serial numbers still bright and legible. Then comes a piece of the bomb bay door, its hydraulics still attached; skeins of electrical wires; and a handful of indignant crabs, which are promptly returned to the sea.

The most evocative items are the smallest: a piece of Bakelite, likely from a radio; a strand of silk parachute cord, still intact; and, most haunting of all, spent rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun that turret gunner Di Petta fired as the plane came under attack. “They went down fighting,” a younger diver murmurs, turning the relic over in his hand.

The crew unloads a component of the airplane’s internal structure from a basket recently brought up from the ocean floor.
The crew unloads a component of the airplane’s internal structure from a basket recently brought up from the ocean floor. Christopher Perez
Pieces of the plane’s rubber fuel bladder, with white stenciled markings indicating serial numbers still clear and legible, recently brought up from the ocean floor.
Pieces of the plane’s rubber fuel bladder, with white stenciled markings indicating serial numbers still clear and legible, recently brought up from the ocean floor. Christopher Perez
A piece of the cockpit identified as part of a rudder pedal assembly.
A piece of the cockpit identified as part of a rudder pedal assembly, recently brought up from the ocean floor.  Christopher Perez

The next day, another basket comes up. This one contains pieces of the cockpit, including Manown’s rudder pedals and his control stick. The most revealing artifact, though, is a half-inch-thick armor plate the size and shape of a large baking sheet. It was meant to protect Manown’s upper torso from stray flak. The upper-left quadrant, though, is missing, leaving behind a jagged, warped edge. Scannon points at the torn steel. “He probably took a direct hit from an antiaircraft round. It would have killed him instantly.”

That evening, everyone returns to their hotel rooms back on shore feeling especially hopeful. With artifacts from the cockpit laid out on deck, there is a sense among the team that they are getting close. But the next morning a tropical storm grazes the islands. The wind and waves snap one of the cables anchoring the barge, putting the operation on hold. For two days everyone hunkers in their hotel rooms as sheets of rain inundate the islands.

When the weather finally clears, the team eagerly returns to the barge. A large metal basket filled with many cubic feet of sediment earlier in the week is hauled from the depths. Once it touches down on deck, team members remove the heavy cover, revealing a visually confusing mix of shells, scraps of metal, chunks of coral and pebbles.

Blake Boteler, a team member and former agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, sees it first: a small piece of what looks like gray coral. It is splintered on one end. He picks it up wordlessly and hands it to Weise, who turns it over in her hand and nods. “A piece of a tibia,” she says. (Later, she explains that this was a provisional identification. Only DPAA has the authority to make an official determination about what it calls “osseous remains.”) Team members now begin transferring the contents of the basket to five-gallon plastic pails and bringing them to the screening station, which hangs off the back of the barge.

Screening sediment is a simple process but takes time. You take a pail and dump the contents into a shallow wooden tray lined with wire mesh. Then you use a hose to wash away the sand and silt, leaving behind anything larger than a quarter of an inch. Scannon and Boteler begin work, joined by Derek Abbey, a longtime team member who was among the group that found pieces of Manown’s Avenger on a nearby island. A former Marine who piloted F-18 Hornets, Abbey took over as Project Recover’s chief executive officer in 2019, though Scannon remains heavily involved in day-to-day operations.

Team members clean and inspect recovered wreckage identified as part of the plane’s fuselage. Any human remains and personal belongings discovered will be repatriated to the United States. The plane’s wreckage, however, will ultimately be returned to the
Team members clean and inspect recovered wreckage identified as part of the plane’s fuselage. Any human remains and personal belongings discovered will be repatriated to the United States. The plane’s wreckage, however, will ultimately be returned to the sea. Christopher Perez

No one at the screening station says much. The sound of running water dominates. As the sand washes away, the screens reveal the usual mix of shells and coral fragments but also much more: shards of clear, red and green glass, which evidently came from an instrument panel; knobs and dials; and additional items that look likely to have come from the cockpit.

Then someone finds a piece of curved gray material. It resembles a shell, but when shown the object Weise says: “It’s a piece of a cranium.” Soon what appear to be more bones surface in the screens: another possible skull fragment, a likely bone from a foot and other pieces, each recorded in a log by Weise.

As the operation winds down, many other artifacts come to light. A piece of the plane’s communication system; a button from a flight uniform; and, finally, a small circle of metal that some cleaning and polishing reveals to be a nickel, quite possibly from the pilot’s pocket—perhaps a talisman or charm. The coin is dated 1941, the year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, setting in motion the sequence of events that would lead to the deaths of Manown and his crew—and, in the fullness of time, the presence of everyone on deck that day.

The likely bone fragments were sent directly to Oahu, Hawaii, for intake at DPAA’s state-of-the-art forensics facility, the largest skeletal identification laboratory in the world. The structure is a gleaming, light-filled building with two wings—from a distance it looks a bit like a plane. The lab houses dozens of active-duty forensic scientists who specialize in handling and analyzing human remains. Typically working with photographs of missing service members in plain view—a constant reminder of the gravity of their charge—these scientists carefully collate, record and analyze the bones and teeth along with any personal effects recovered. To make a positive identification, they make use of evidence such as the location of the remains relative to the wreckage; the presence of items belonging to the deceased; comparisons with dental records, typically those recorded in military personnel files; and dog tags.

But these methods are suggestive, not dispositive. DNA evidence, on the other hand, when compared with DNA taken from cheek swabs of the deceased’s relatives, can provide conclusive identification—a process that can take months and sometimes years. Until that time, the military won’t comment on the status of any investigation, not even to family members—including, for now, Manown’s.

Once a case is closed, however, the remains are sent to the closest surviving family members and given a full military funeral. Project Recover members frequently attend these funerals, as many did in September when Wilbur Mitts was laid to rest in Seaside, California.

Diana Ward, niece of Wilbur Mitts
Wilbur Mitts was laid to rest in California in September 2023. Diana Ward, his niece and oldest living relative, was among dozens of family members who attended the ceremony. Brian Frank
Wilbur Mitts
It took two years to identify the remains of Wilbur Mitts, recovered in 2021.  Brian Frank

Diana Ward, Mitts’ niece and oldest living relative, sat beneath a canopy at the gravesite, surrounded by dozens of family members. She never met her uncle, she said during her eulogy, having been born three days after his plane was shot down in Palau. But she described how he remained a palpable presence during her childhood: The family sang his favorite songs and nurtured his memory as if he might one day return.

Her account is typical of many surviving relatives of MIAs. With no body to mourn, survivors experience what psychologists call “ambiguous loss.” Deprived of the closure of a conclusive death, family members dwell in a peculiar purgatory that can carry over from one generation to the next. Perhaps this helps explain why Mitts’ funeral felt more like a celebration than anything else. The dead cannot come back to life, but they can come home.

As the coffin was lowered into the ground, Zaborski quietly approached Ward. He knelt beside her, and the two spoke privately for several minutes before he hugged her and returned to the Project Recover team members who were standing in a circle nearby.

At a reception afterward, Scannon mused on the meaning of it all. If the remains he and his team found over the summer are ultimately proved to belong to Manown, Scannon said, he’d find it eerie, if a little fitting, that the plane’s junior crew members had been found first. “When a plane is headed for a crash, there’s an important rule that the pilot or commander is the last one to bail out,” he explained. “In a way, then, it’s appropriate that Di Petta and Mitts came home first.”

Time will tell whether Manown will come home, too. His Avenger will not. The government of Palau considers the plane, like other wrecks and relics from World War II, a part of the nation’s historical heritage. Which is why, a few months earlier, on the expedition’s final day, the team collected all the pieces of the bomber the divers had recovered during the excavation. Under a dark gray sky, they wrapped the plane parts in a burial shroud made of wire mesh and secured it with a rope. As everyone gathered to watch, the crane lifted the giant bundle and brought it out over the water before gently lowering it until it rested just below the surface. A single diver jumped overboard and, dodging whitecaps, swam out to the rope. Then he pulled a knife from a sheath strapped to his leg and cut the line. The shattered pieces of Manown’s plane vanished from view, reunited with the rest of the wreckage in the darkness below.

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