Baltimore author Wil Hylton to discuss book about MIA recovery mission

Author Wyl S. Hilton, a Baltimore resident and New York Times contributor. His new book, "Vanished," is the true story of the decades-long search for a missing World War II bomber crew.
Author Wyl S. Hilton, a Baltimore resident and New York Times contributor. His new book, "Vanished," is the true story of the decades-long search for a missing World War II bomber crew. (Chris Hartlove / Riverhead Books, Handout)

For the Baltimore journalist Wil Hylton, some ugly numbers help represent the painful legacy of American armed forces members who remain missing in action.

One statistic is 83,000 — the number of Americans who have disappeared in battle since World War II, and for whom a specialized military unit is searching.


Another is 47,000 — the number of armed forces members who vanished in the Pacific Theatre during that conflict alone.

"Forty-seven thousand happens to be the total number of combat casualties in Vietnam," Hylton said Monday in a telephone interview. We are aware of how deep and painful the impact of Vietnam war losses has been in our culture. We're less aware of what the MIA losses have meant."


The 39-year-old Hylton, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, will read from his new book Thursday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II," was released Tuesday. The book chronicles one particular search, for a B44 bomber carrying 11 Americans that crashed on Sept. 1, 1944, over the Pacific islands of Palau. The wreckage hadn't been found for more than four decades, and none of the crew members had been seen again. As part of his research, Hylton joined Navy divers on a barge in the middle of the Pacific after the sunken bomber was discovered.

Traumatized, the brothers of one gunner, Jimmie Doyle, became convinced that the airman had survived the crash and was living a secret life in California with a new family. That story had a devastating effect on Doyle's wife, Myrle, and son, Tommy.

Below is a condensed version of a conversation with Hylton about what he learned during the five years he worked on "Vanished."

You wrote an article for GQ about the search for the B44. What inspired you to revisit the material in book form?

After I finished the magazine article, I felt deeply dissatisfied. I hadn't told the story I wanted to tell. The military withheld tons of information from me: the origins of the operation, the number of missing men they were looking for and who those men were.

The Navy hoped my story would be about this awesome military team doing awesome, high-tech work on the barge. They didn't want me to get into the human story of loss and grief.

It was enormously frustrating. So, I just kept following up.

What obstacles did you overcome to get the story?

The longer I stayed on the barge, the more interested I got in going down there and seeing what they were doing. The Navy stopped me cold. They said, "You can't go down there with our divers using our gear. You can't rent scuba gear and dive off our barge. By the way, the coordinates are kept secret by the American and Palau governments, and if you go down without permission, you'll break the law and something bad could happen to you."

Clearly that didn't stop you.

It just made me angry, to be honest. After I finished a loud and uncomfortable conversation over satellite telephone, the ship's doctor, Andy Baldwin, came up and said, "I can get you down there. We can't dive, but we can go swimming."


I'd been steering clear of Doc Baldwin because he'd been on "The Bachelor" the year before, and I'm not a big fan of reality television. And, I was totally wrong. I totally misjudged the guy.

We went swimming with just a mask and a pair of flippers, and by "coincidence" we swam over the part of the wreckage where the divers were. The plane was between 40 feet and 70 feet below the surface of the water. We were going to have to dive down and feel that pressure on our bodies while holding our breaths.

Your book discusses something called "ambiguous loss." What's the mechanism by which that trauma affects not just the immediate generation, but those that follow?

When a serviceman is missing in action and there's no clear explanation for what happened, the families experience a distinct form of trauma. You know that something terrible happened, but you don't know what. You hope that maybe he survived. Over time, that hope becomes corrosive.

You'd think the agony of uncertainty would have the greatest effect on that generation, but it doesn't. I meet grandchildren and great-grandchildren who were born 30, 40 years after the person was reported missing, and they are just consumed by it.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has been criticized as inefficient. You write that the American military's commitment to ''leave no man behind'' is unmatched throughout the world.

That's right. Other countries try to recover their lost service members, but their operations don't even remotely compare to ours. After brutal civil wars, people in South America or the Balkans or South Korea try to recover the disappeared. But, they're working in their own backyards in an era that's much more recent. The [Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command] is all over the globe. They're on glaciers in the Himalayas. They're going back for nearly a century, looking for 83,000 missing men.

About the book

"Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II" was released Tuesday by Riverhead Books. 288 pages, $27.95.

If you go

Author Wil Hylton will speak about his book at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

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