Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a three part series describing how the BentProp Project has undertaken one of the most noble tasks–Returning MIA’s to their families and country. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
Lt. William Arnett, a Marine pilot from VMF122, became the last Marine lost on Palau. He and his Corsair disappeared during a bombing run on 5 August 1945. The next day, the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber piloted by Col. Paul Tibbets, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On 2 September 1945, General MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender in Tokyo Bay on the USS Missouri.
The BentProp Project has found debris from at least 30 American planes over the past 20 years. They continue to research and have found some recent success with their new partnerships from the Scripps Institute and the University of Delaware–known as Project RECOVER.
In May 2016, a TBM-1C Avenger missing since July 1944, was located by Project RECOVER. The most recent find was made possible by a substantial financial commitment from Dan Friedkin, founder and chairman of Air Force Heritage Flight Foundation and chairman of Gulf States Toyota and The Friedkin Group. His donation has provided Project RECOVER the ability to sustain missions while also expanding search and discovery efforts.
Once a site is discovered, BentProp informs the Department of Defense’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). DPAA is tasked with recovery and repatriation efforts, including identification and notification of the families of MIAs. BentProp does no salvage or restoration efforts. The sites are protected and are under control of the Palauan government.
Many of the BentProp members are active duty service members, paying their own way to Palau and using personal leave time to help with search efforts. After the discovery, BentProp holds a small ceremony is to honor the fallen. Here is the ceremony, as described by a BentProp member:
“We hold these flag ceremonies for a number of reasons. First, to honor the fallen crewmen once we find their airplane. We do it to commemorate the start of their journey home. We also do it for the families of the crewmen who are alive today.
We do the research, search, discovery, and documentation of the MIA crash site. We don’t know when the U.S. Government will be able to do the recovery and identifications of the crewmen. And that has to happen prior to notification of the families. But when all that happens, the families will get a flag, a copy of the video of the ceremony, and then we’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have.
The ceremony is pretty simple. Pat tells the gathered group a bit of history surrounding the battle in Palau. He tells everyone what happened on the day this crew was shot down and went missing. The names are read. Anyone who would like to add comments for the family are welcome to do so. A poem is read to honor the fallen:
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”
Then the flags are folded and given to someone to safeguard until the day these men are returned to their families. And then we all go back to searching for the next MIA aircraft and its crew.”
The members of the BentProp Project are also cognizant of the people of Palau. They recognize that permission to search in Palau for MIA’s is granted by the Palauan government as a privilege. There is a sense of respect and camaraderie for the Palauan people, their rules, and customs that is not taken lightly.
But through all of the research, preparation, and searching BentProp knows their efforts are making a difference for families.
Dr. Scannon says that if there was one thing he could tell people about the BentProp mission, it would be this:
“I really want the families of MIA’s to know that people do care. We are trying to build a team that works everyday to bring American MIA’s back to their families.”
BentProp will continue to search until they find Lt William Arnett and everyone who has gone before.
At the end of the game, it’s not about finding aluminum. It’s not about finding wreck sites. It’s about finding the MIAs who are no longer MIA. It’s about finding closure.—BentProp.org
FighterSweep would like to thank Dr. Pat Scannon and Derek “Cosmo” Abbey for their time to interview and help with this piece.
Top Photo credit: Wreckage of a U.S. Navy TBM-1C Avenger located by Project RECOVER off Palau. Photo: Eric Terrill, Mark Moline