Baltimore writer Wil Hylton goes deep to solve a decades-old mystery

On a military barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, half a world away from his home in Baltimore, Wil S. Hylton felt ghosts.

"I got on this barge thinking I was going to do a magazine piece," says Hylton, who was on an assignment from GQ. "And I spent this time on the barge just feeling the presence of death and unanswered questions all around me. I'm not a religious person, I'm not even a spiritual person, I'm a born-again atheist, but the sense of ghosts in that place-whatever ghosts may be in your mind-were there."

Hylton's first book, Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II (Riverhead), released this week, was born out of these ghosts. At the time, he had no idea that they would consume the next several years of his life. In fact, he really didn't even know what he was feeling, or why. Because nobody aboard the barge would tell him anything.

He was working on a story about JPAC (Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command), the military unit in charge of recovering lost soldiers from previous wars, or their remains. Given the nature of the missions, the secrecy was understandable-JPAC did not want to give false hope to families who have been waiting over half a century.

"At a fundamental level, it was the unit's job not just to bring home remains, but to provide each family with answers, in the hope that truth would allow life, finally, to go on," Hylton writes in Vanished. But if truth would allow life finally to go on, falsehood would jam up the cogs again. They had to be certain.

At first, this didn't bother Hylton. Initially, he thought of it as a procedural adventure story and planned to follow various JPAC team members from the barge off the coast of the tiny archipelago of Palau to the jungle of Peleliu and then all the way to Cambodia and Thailand.

But then everything changed.

"I got on the barge and I didn't want to leave, man," Hylton says. "There was something under the barge. All these incredibly talented disparate service members had come on this barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and they were down there exploring, and it was some kind of plane, and they were reading these moving emails, and I thought, I'm not leaving this story, this is the story right here. I've got to see this thing through."

Hylton, now a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, had reason to trust his gut. He's been a reporter virtually all his life. "I can clearly remember being a student at Roland Park Elementary, thinking it would be cool to get to high school because they would have a newspaper I could work on," he says. And when he started City College, he immediately found the editor of the paper, who asked him what he wanted to do. "I eventually want to do your job," Hylton told him.

By his junior year, he was doing the editor's job and, along with it, had an internship at The Evening Sun, which happened to fold when he was there, which was also the same time that The Sun faced its first round of buyouts. "All of a sudden there was no one around," he says. "There was this tiny community that were the leftover feature writers from the Accent section and the Today section, the two feature sections. And those of us who had been at The Evening Sun moved over to the Morning Sun and set up desks."

As a result of the vacuum, Hylton, though he was a high school student, was treated like a reporter and, he says, he essentially quit going to school. When it came time for college, he hated Kenyon-the small liberal arts college his father had attended-partly because "there was no newspaper. I loved being a reporter in Baltimore," he says. He eventually ended up in Albuquerque, N.M., where he still hated school but was able to write for the Albuquerque Tribune, which hired him on the strength of his Sun pieces. An avid outdoorsman, he spent a great deal of time in the wilderness, married his high school sweetheart, whom he became reacquainted with out West, had children, and began to write for magazines like Rolling Stone, Harper's, and GQ, the magazine that had sent him to the small Pacific archipelago of Palau.

And everything he'd learned in a lifetime of reporting told him the story was here. Eric Emery, the "rumpled archaeologist . . . with deep lines etched around his eyes, his beard at least a week grown in, his hair an unruly explosion of wire" who was in charge of the mission, had made it clear to Hylton that he was tolerated but not exactly welcome, answering questions with as few words as possible.

So Hylton got on a satellite phone with JPAC's public affairs officer and started raising hell. "I told them, 'I need to just focus on one of these. I'm not going to Peleliu, the jungle; I'm not going to Cambodia and Laos and all these other places,'" Hylton recalls. "'That's not the way I see story. I'm not going to do some round up. I want to dig down someplace. All these guys are going underwater and doing something and I don't even know what it is.' So I was kind of pissed they wouldn't let me go see it."

After his loud phone calls, everyone on the boat sensed the frustration that was eating at Hylton, who is a certified scuba diver and was insistent that he could dive down with Navy divers to see what was under the water there. "Maybe I was being a little bit of a prima donna," he admits. "But I felt like it was my responsibility as a reporter to push. And I lost. They said 'no,' and I had nowhere else to go. I had no other recourse to get down there. The coordinates aren't even publicly available, so I couldn't wait until there was a day off and go find it."

At this point, Hylton was resigned to returning home, writing his procedural story, and allowing all that he didn't know about what was under the barge to serve as a metaphor for what we didn't know about the many men lost in the Pacific during World War II, which, as it turns out, is 47,000 men-about the same number as the total combat casualties in Vietnam.

But the story would not let him go. His first breakthrough came from the most unexpected source. One of the medical doctors aboard the ship had appeared the previous year on the reality television show The Bachelor, which had initially caused Hylton to shy away from him. But it quickly became apparent that "Doc" Andy Baldwin was more than just a pretty face.

"If he had a down minute, he would grab a broom and sweep up," Hylton says of Baldwin. "He ended up spending as much time underwater, doing the grunt work and suctioning sand off the bottom in these huge suits and hard hats. He was always down there, didn't have to be. And in the evening, he'd go out for these epic runs through the islands, and then on days off, he would go and treat island children. He was just this absurd good samaritan-type personality, and I grew to really like him and completely forgot about the chips I had against him for being a reality star."

Recognizing Hylton's frustration, Baldwin approached him and said that even though JPAC would not let them scuba dive in the area, they couldn't-or weren't going to-keep them from swimming. Doc said he would take Hylton free diving, or, as Baldwin put it "breath-hold diving." So Hylton borrowed a mask and flippers and stripped down to his underwear and went out into the water with the Bachelor.

"We jumped in the water, man, and I was scared out of my wits," recalls Hylton. "I have done plenty of snorkeling, but the most shallow part [of the wreck] was 30 or 40 feet and the deepest part was about 70 feet, so getting down to that depth involves holding your breath for a minute or something."

To make it worse, Baldwin told him about something called "shallow-water blackout," which can happen if you don't allow a little bit of air to escape from your lungs as you move. Hylton, an athletic guy with a compact, wiry frame and a bald head, kept trying to go down, feeling like he was out of breath and then racing to the surface, terrified and gasping for air. "Finally I made this decision, I'm willing to black out if I have to," Hylton says. "The sensation is really terrifying. You go down 30 or 40 feet, and after 33 feet, you're feeling twice the weight of the atmosphere. At 66 feet, you're at three times the atmosphere's pressure, so what happens is your lungs just collapse. They might still have a fair amount of oxygen molecules left in there to sustain you for a while, but it's the sensation of having exhaled as fully as possible. So your brain is telling you, 'breathe, breathe, breathe,' but your body can actually get by on that amount of oxygen that's compressed like it would be in a tank. It's a mental game at that point. You have to tell yourself you're willing to have a medical calamity."

He told himself he was willing to have such a calamity. (It helped to know that Baldwin, as a doctor and a triathlete, was the best possible person to have around.)

And then Hylton saw it. "It was like the ocean parted," he says. "It was all this muddy, hazy shit where you can't see anything, and then whoom! There's this huge piece of airplane and it's a World War II bomber, and there's a hole right there where the waist guns are, and there are still the guns, and it's just there under the water. Crazy. Crazy."

Hylton knew he had to find out more, but once again, he was flummoxed. He was only able to see the plane for seconds and could make out no markings. At the time, he knew little about the U.S. air campaign in the Pacific and knew next to nothing about World War II bombers so he couldn't continue to research it on his own. He also didn't have any idea that this was JPAC's first underwater retrieval mission and that tight-lipped Eric Emery had been preparing for such a mission for years and, in some senses, for his entire life.

Though Emery had not been particularly welcoming, he approached Hylton in the hotel hallway the night before he was leaving and gave him what he needed. "He said, 'You have to promise me that you won't write this article until you've spoken to Pat Scannon.' And he was speaking in this hushed voice because he wasn't supposed to be saying anything about Pat Scannon to me."

Eric Emery turned out to be one of the key figures in Vanished, and Pat Scannon another. Fifteen years earlier, Scannon had come across a crashed bomber while scuba diving in Palau and it had changed his life. "He had come to the islands to escape the pressure of daily life, yet he found himself overcome by an even greater sense of purpose," Hylton writes in Vanished. "Later when Scannon tried to explain the feeling that came over him that day, the sense of duty and responsibility that would consume the next two decades of his life, that would bring him back, year after year, to swim and dive and hike and climb and fly small aircraft over islands; when he tried to describe the sensation that gripped him as he gazed upon the wing, words would always fail."

Hylton could have been describing the effect the plane had on him. By the time he found Scannon, he sensed the parallel in their trajectories, but he was on deadline and was able to squeeze in only a brief section about Scannon and BentProp, the organization Scannon founded to try and find as many of the lost men as possible.

As powerful as the experience was, Hylton may have forgotten it and moved on after he wrote his initial story, as he had so many times before, had it not been for one more crucial piece that fell into place just before his deadline.

JPAC found a dog tag from the plane, which was a B-24 Liberator bomber that had been flown by a crew called the Big Stoop crew. It had belonged to a man named Jimmy Doyle, and so Hylton called the JPAC public affairs officer again and said he wanted to meet the Doyles. He was amazed that they agreed to let him-"I think they just got tired of telling me no," he says-and soon he was in Snyder, Texas to talk with Tommy Doyle, the son of one of the missing men.

"I was just talking to Tommy about what [the possibility of finding out what happened to his father] meant to him and finding out that it meant everything to him, finding out that it always had," Hylton says. "His father was not someone he had ever known. He was 2 when he left. He knew his father as a ghost and the worst kind of ghost, because his father was somebody he longed for, and yet even as he longed for him, his father was the source of the great pain in his life."

Everything was worse for Tommy Doyle because, all his life, stories had circulated that said his father was still alive, in California, with a new family. "The stories that he told me about his father maybe still being alive were very convincing," Hylton says. "I couldn't explain how those stories could be so vivid coming from close family members who are absolutely convinced and seemed to have strong personal experience, having basically encountered [Jimmy]. He called them and asked questions about the family, and when they challenged the caller and said they knew it was Jimmy, he hung up. Or they went out to see him in California and he took off, but they were able to confirm with neighbors that he lived there." Neither Hylton nor, more importantly, the Doyles had any explanation for the stories. For them, it was far from an academic question.

As they spoke, Tommy Doyle wept. "He's this big powerful figure," Hylton says. "When I say powerful, I mean not just physically, though he is that. But his role in the community is like a shaper of men. He is the old football coach in that part of West Texas. He's the guy who was a football star himself, and [he] takes these young men and teaches them discipline and courage and integrity and what it is to be strong."

It was shocking for Hylton to see such a man crying about the loss of someone he had never known and who had been dead for 70 years. "By the time I left the Doyles' house, I was aware that this ambiguous loss existed, though I didn't know a name for it," he said. "I had just seen this emotional phenomenon, this suspended grief."

Hylton returned home from West Texas and wrote the story and filed it. But he never quit reporting. He just kept making calls: to the Doyles, to Pat Scannon, and to JPAC. He says he was on fire, that he couldn't quit thinking about it. He had never wanted to do a book before, finding the long magazine story the perfect length. But this was different.

"I told my agent I wanted to do a book because I just wanted to find out what the hell did happen with Tommy's dad," he says. If this West Texas football coach who had broken down crying was representative of any significant portion of the families of 47,000 men lost in the Pacific, then "there was something big, some big epidemic of this particular kind of grief that I'd never heard about."

The book-which is part mystery, part history, part CSI procedural, and part adventure-is, according to Hylton, "just a drug-delivery system to deliver the story about the legacy of grief. I wanted to tell the story of the grief. I wanted to explore that feeling, because it's a feeling that has sort of consumed me and it's a specific kind of grief that's so much about narrative, and it's obviously better to tell the story as a story, and you can have all of these adventures and mystery and the character, but underneath all that is the story that really matters to me."

As such, the book is a deeply ethical study of what war really means and its long-lasting effects.

Hylton took a leave of absence from the Times and devoted himself fully to the project. He never even paused to write a book proposal but told his agent that if someone wanted the book, they would just have to trust him as he reconstructed the lives of the Big Stoop crew (especially Jimmy Doyle, Tommy's father), interviewed family members, researched what psychologists call "ambiguous loss," learned all he could about the Pacific campaign, about World War II bombers-especially the B24-and about the operations of JPAC and BentProp.

In so many ways, Hylton's own story became a parallel to that of characters like Scannon and Emery, about whom he was writing. And as he reported, he began to play some role in the story himself. "I ended up being an intermediary a lot of times between different sources of information who either were not supposed to talk to one another or hadn't thought to communicate," Hylton says. "The story that I don't tell in the book is the story of my entering into this narrative thrall in which I-like Scannon, like Emery, like all of the 11 families [of the crew members]-had ideas about what really happened and didn't know what to believe because there were so many things that didn't add up and there was so much emotional freight attached to this thing that it felt impossible to let it go, and as I found bits and pieces of information, I started to convey it to people because I thought they needed to know."

He also went back to Palau with Scannon's BentProp crew, which included another local man, Mark Swank, who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency and owns the Crofton Cantina in Crofton, Md., and who had spent hundreds of hours looking for information about the Big Stoop plane and the Pacific campaign in the National Archives in College Park. Whether he is in the bar or traveling to Afghanistan for his day job, Swank always has a laptop filled with material detailing what he had learned at the archives.

When Swank and Hylton recently met up at the Crofton Cantina to talk about the book, Swank opened the laptop and spent nearly an hour scrolling through hand-drawn maps and testimonies of Japanese prisoners of war. Swank had spent so much time researching in the archives that it was as if he was on a first-name basis with all of the actors in the battles that raged around Palau. In 2008, the pieces came together and Swank thought he had figured out what had happened to the men aboard the plane.

Numerous pictures on his laptop show BentProp's efforts to prove him right, to bring peace to the families of the crew aboard the plane that Hylton had seen beneath the sea. And in the same way Swank pieced together the various accounts from the war in order to figure out what actually happened-to the extent we can know-Hylton has taken his story, the stories of the men aboard the plane, and the stories of everyone else who, like himself, has been fascinated, obsessed even, with making right something that happened 70 years ago, and he has put them together in a story. It is a story that we really need, ensuring today's soldiers that they will not be lost and forgotten. The grief that consumed the Doyle family and so many others, the grief that propelled Pat Scannon and Eric Emery and Mark Swank and Wil Hylton comes, as Hylton puts it in the book, from facing "a story with no ending," where "their inconsolable grief had as much to do with narrative as with death."

Vanished, and the people it chronicles, provides this sense of narrative, and in the process, Hylton proves himself a major American writer. He has done what every war story since The Iliad has attempted: In telling the story of the ghosts he first felt on the barge in the cerulean-blue Pacific, he has brought some small bit of peace to the long aftermath of war.

Wil Hylton reads from Vanished at the central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Nov. 7. For more information, please visit prattlibrary.org.

Read a excerpt from the book Vanished