In the western Pacific lies many a mystery. The Republic of Palau, a part of the Caroline Islands, is the final resting place of dedicated World War II airmen who never made it home.
As one can imagine, and as some know all too well, the unknown status of a family member or loved one can still cause great grief. Years may pass, but the all-important sense of closure remains distant.
The BentProp Project is up to the task.
"That's what we do: we search the waters and jungles of the western pacific, in what we hope are intelligent ways, for clues that may lead to the location and identification of wreck sites and remains of men who gave their lives in defense of America."
In 1993, the beginnings of the BentPropTM team first set out in search of the Japanese trawler that President George H.W. Bush sunk during World War II. The boat was soon found, albeit off the coast of a different yet almost identical island than initially thought.
During his time on the island, Dr. Patrick J. Scannon discovered a 65' wing from a B-24 still lying in the water with an engine attached. He then had the chance to speak with the locals who were able to show him other pieces of plane wreckage which had, like the wing, been undisturbed for fifty years. He began to wonder what other mysteries could be uncovered in this area of the Pacific.
Dan Bailey, a friend of Dr. Scannon's and a team member of the group who found the Japanese trawler, had written the book "Shipwrecks of Palau". This book not only highlighted the shipwrecks nearby, but also the air campaigns during the war and the American aircraft that were lost.
From Dr. Scannon: "... I began to realize that many American aircraft had been shot down over Palau, some in locatinos that could be searched for with scuba gear or machete. I have also tracked down and interviewed many Marine and Army Air Corps veterans of these air campaigns, who added much more information. Finally, I have made several more trips back to Palau, speaking with elder Palauans and hiring guides to take me to even more wreck sites. The process continues to this day."
Viva The Matadors had the opportunity to interview Casey Doyle, a Red Raider and the son of former football player, receiver Tommy Doyle, who still holds the single game touchdown receiving record with three touchdown catches against Kansas St.
Viva The Matadors: I think I have to start with the setting, because it's pretty amazing. How did you choose the Republic of Palau as a place to begin this project, or was the setting dictated by the the wreckage and remains?
Casey Doyle: Dr. Pat Scannon was the originator of the BentProp Project, and he began the expeditions in Palau as a result of another trip he was on. Dr. Scannon was on the 1993 (?) expedition that found the Imperial Japanese ship that President George Bush, Senior destroyed during WW II. That trip was highly successful, and they found the ship within the first few days. With some time at the end of the trip to kill, Dr. Scannon and his wife hired a guide to take them around to some tourist dive sites. The guide ended up showing Dr. Scannon a wing from a B-24 that was lying in just a few feet of water, but the guide didn’t really have any information about when the aircraft was shot down, the casualties, etc. Dr. Scannon asked around and did some of his own investigation, and found that no one really knew much about the wing, and really no one had ever looked into it. Palau—as are many of the Pacific islands--are littered with hundreds of thousands of pieces of WW II debris which have now become more a part of the landscape to the locals that items of history or interest. Since Palau is relatively unspoiled by over-development, and Palau is not one of the more famous battlefields like Iwo Jima or Normandy, a lot of the wreckage, remnants, and ordinance have been left in place. Dr. Scannon soon became overcome with the injustice that several men MUST have died that were associated with that B-24 wrecked wing, so why was no one looking for those men or their remains? Why had the matter not been solved decades before? Therefore, on his own accord, he began researching through U.S. national, military, and historical records as well as independently traveling back to Palau in order to discover what had happened to all of the downed aircraft and MIAs associated with the Palauan air campaigns and the Peleliu invasion of Sept 1944. Over the years, other team members joined up for various reasons, and the BentProp project was born.
Viva The Matadors: Tell us how you got involved in the BentProp Project, including the project finding your grandfather's wedding ring and dog tags? What did this mean for you and your family?
Casey Doyle: To clear up any misunderstanding, I joined BentProp AFTER they found my grandfather. The team ultimately discovered that there were four different B-24s that crashed around the Palauan islands (the wing Dr. Scannon originally was shown was not related to my grandfather’s plane). The first two B-24s were found in the first couple of years. The third B-24, my grandfather’s B-24 (tail #’453), the BentProp crew searched for 10 full years before finding. (The fourth and final B-24 still remains our #1 priority search target.) Ultimately the team finally found the ‘453 on a tip from a local fisherman in 2004. The U.S. reports had put the final crash site in the same area of ocean, but a few miles away, which is where BentProp had spent years looking. JPAC (the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) came out and performed the largest underwater archeology project they had even undertaken at the time or since in order to retrieve the human remains from the crash site in 2005 through 2006. It wasn’t until 2009 that all eight sets of remains from the aircraft were positively identified and ready to be returned to the families. (Three people bailed out from the aircraft crew of 11-men. Those 3 were captured and known POWs and believed to be executed on Palau. Those men are still in the field (missing), so they too remain in our top priorities.)
From 2004-2008, I had been in my initial training in the Marine Corps and done a few trips back and forth to Iraq, so I was a little preoccupied with my own war at the time. I was interested and keeping tabs on the situation, but I was not involved in the search or recovery efforts for my grandfather. In 2009 I acted as the military escort for my grandfather’s remains, bringing them back from the JPAC lab in Hawaii to Lamesa, TX for final burial. Many of the BentProp team made the trip to Snyder and Lamesa for the funeral, and that was the first time I met many of them. It was very curious to me why all these people were part of a private organization that spent their own money and their own time to find other people’s family members. And also it took me a long time to separate who-was-who from the government players (JPAC, the navy divers, etc) from the BentProp personnel.
Ultimately it dawned on me that the BentProppers were just a bunch of damn good people who were driven by a sense of responsibility to our nation’s troops and a sense of overwhelming generosity to the families, most of whom they’ve never met. So after my grandfather’s funeral in 2009 and 2010, I "rushed" the organization and lobbied for a spot on the team. I’ve been on 3 field missions now (2011, 2013, & 2014), so I like to say that I’m still in my pledgeship of BentProp and the highly impressive membership they have of retired military, pilots, medical doctors, PhDs, stuntmen, scientists, archeologists, and aviation experts.
Casey Doyle: **Off topic of your question, but I invariably get asked a few other questions: Why is a private organization doing this when it should be the government’s (JPAC’s) job? Why does the search, recovery, and identification take so long?
JPAC is doing their damn best to find all of the MIA’s. But with limited resources, they are looking for 88,000 MIA/POWs from all conflicts the US has been involved with since 1776. They have to 1) find (the hardest part) the location, 2) execute the recovery, 3) identify the remains, and finally 4) return the remains to the family or perform final internment. Now, of those 88,000 MIA/POWs, 78,000 are associated with WW II. But because of politics and Congress, JPAC is forced to allocate the majority of their funds and efforts toward Vietnam conflict MIA/POWs. Politics: go figure.
A private organization like BentProp can do the research, do the looking, and do all of the years of legwork necessary to find these MIAs. Then we can turn over the location, the records, the GPS coordinates, and the pictures of a now KNOW MIA/POW location to JPAC, thus making their job easier and serving an easy recovery target up to them on a silver platter. We don’t see it as doing JPAC’s job, rather enhancing the overall effectiveness of the MIA/POW search mission.
As far as timelines go, searching for stuff in ungodly thick jungle and under 70+ water depths is just harder than most people think. It’s one of those things that is hard to describe unless you’ve tried it yourself. And doing that over the vast tens of millions of square miles of the Pacific is time consuming to put it mildly. The recovery is basically an archeological site when on land, but when the site is underwater, it takes on an infinitely higher level of difficulty. Special Navy hard-hat divers are required to do the hours on the ocean floor that recreational or technical divers cannot do. Specialized excavation equipment is obviously needed, but so is the patience and delicacy of a scientific exhumation. So the recovery is not something as simple as raising the wreckage or dredging the ocean floor. As far as the identification goes, JPAC is very thorough, as they should be. They do not want to be in the business of making guesses and returning the wrong remains to the wrong families. So they use dental records, radiographs, and DNA matching. But only maternal DNA can be used to make the identification. So first you have to have a very good idea who the found remains belong to. Then JPAC has to track down living family member through mothers and sisters in order to have a DNA sample to compare to. For a crew of 11 (as with a B-24) whose remains are all found mingled together in a tangled wreck, that takes quite a bit of time.
So overall, the process from start to finish for each MIA can take between 2-10 years once the site is discovered.
Viva The Matadors: How often do you have the opportunity to participate in an expedition and what's the average day like in an expedition?
Casey Doyle: The expeditions are once a year for about 30 days at a time. Usually they fall sometime between mid-Feb to the end of April in order to avoid the rainy season (didn’t quite work this year). However the research is continuous throughout the year. Plus we have lots of "friends of BentProp" who live in Palau who feed us information, questions, and leads throughout the year that all feed into our expedition mission planning.
I’ve been able to make 3 expeditions now: 2011, 2013, and 2014. There is a core group of BentProp personnel that make it out every year that I’m a part of, but with anything that is personal time and money dependent, there are years that everyone must skip here and there for various reasons.
Viva The Matadors: As a diver, have you ever been the first person on the team to spot undiscovered wreckage? If so, what did you experience in that moment?
Casey Doyle: No. The fact that I’m never around when a discovery is made is a point of irony and humor within the team. It’s bordering on superstition, that if I’m not around, a big find is likely. This year when the team found the TBM Avenger, I was on a helicopter having a guy show us some metal he found on a remote island that was virtually inaccessible. When the Hellcat was discovered this year, I was in the jungle with the JPAC representative digging archeological test pits at our suspected POW execution site. Someday I’ll be in the right place at the right time, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Viva The Matadors: How involved are you with the Stockbridge High School students and their ROV's?
Casey Doyle: Very involved. The Stockbridge Underwater Robotics team has been coming out for three consecutive years now. Each year they get a little bit better with their technology, and a little bit better with their organization. BentProp has tapered our oversight of their activities over the years to more of a shadow/mentor type relationship. However we still work very closely with them. Sometimes the Stockbridge high school team thing turns into more of a leadership and problem-solving lab in a field environment vice a tightly-tuned search, but that’s OK. Somehow the next generation of MIA/POW researchers has to be developed. Working with the Stockbridge kids is our bid for success in that area.
Viva The Matadors: Did your grandfather's service influence your decision to join the Marines?
Casey Doyle: Actually no. My decision to join the Marine Corp had more to do with personal desires in the post-9/11 world and, like all good stories, a girl. When I made the decision to pursue the Marine Corps (which took almost all of 2003), the search for my grandfather still looked less than promising, and my family was not as involved during that time.
Viva The Matadors: The daily reports from this year indicated that Marcus Luttrell was in the area on a search for World War II divers. Did BentProp assist in his search?
Casey Doyle: Marcus Luttrell, Governor Rick Perry, and Sgt R.V. Burgin were some of the VIPs that came out this year. Rick Perry is a friend and associate of Dr. Pat Scannon, and Marcus Luttrell and R.V. Burgin were guests of the Governor. Some of the 13 POWs we are searching for that we believed were executed in a consolidated location were WW II Navy frogmen (early version of SEALs). Marcus Luttrell, for obvious reasons, was most interested in the identification and discovery possibilities of these Navy frogmen.
Viva The Matadors: It looks like there were several members of the media accompanying BentProp this year. When can we expect to see what came of the reporters and film crews who were on hand to document BentProp's efforts?
Casey Doyle: There was a disproportionate amount of media this year for sure. Media has been with us before several times, but this was certainly a lot. Some of the previous media that has come out:
1. "Vanished" is a book that Wil Hylton wrote which came out in November 2013.
2. Wil Hylton also wrote a lengthy GQ article about the JPAC recovery of the ‘453 B-24 in 2008?
3. Popular Science had an article on BentProp in early 2013.
4. "Last Flight Home" was a documentary about BentProp and about 4 of the different recoveries between 2000 and 2006.
The media that came out this year:
1. GoPro sent 2 different cameramen and one of their Vice-Presidents out this year. GoPro has been a huge supporter and partner with BentProp, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Delaware, and Stockbridge High School. They have provided us with scores of GoPro cameras for the last 2 years that have greatly enhanced our search efforts. GoPro is without a doubt the most helpful media entity. The guys we have worked with "get" the mission, and they are far more helpful than can be explained. As we understand it, GoPro plans to put out some ~10 minute video in late May or early June. But GoPro is our trusted partner, so they can put out whatever video or media they want and we’ll be fine with it.
3. 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper came out for a few days. I think they will put out their piece on the regular 60 Minutes show sometime during the fall. But your guess is as good as mine on that.
4. Pursuit Productions and Traveling Picture Show Company were the major media muscle movement. They said they are doing a full feature length documentary that would be released in theaters. The example they used was something akin to "Blackfish," but now that I’ve seen "Blackfish," I’m not sure what to think about that. But I guess we’ll see. Traveling Picture Show is wrapped up with the movie they recently made and is in theaters, "The Quiet Ones," so they have not given us any time frame or what they are thinking.
Ed. Notes by Seth C:
1. First and foremost, a huge round of applause to Casey for taking the time to do this interview and to our very own battledome for introducing VTM to Casey and suggesting this interview.
2. Much thanks and appreciation to LoneStarRedRaider for helping me with questions and working through the BentProg.org site.
3. I had this email exchange with Casey after he had already conducted the interview and offered to send to us videos of the documentary, Last Flight Home, which was also a book by Will Hylton:
Seth C: I've also meant to mention that my grandfather on my mom's side was a Seabee in WWII. He passed away when I was all too young to think about asking him where he went, but reading the site and your interview, it reminded me of him. I know he was in the South Pacific, I know he spent some time in New Zealand as I found some letters that he received from some New Zealander girl when he was away. I know he was in this area. I have vague memories of him talking about the work he did on many small islands. So in a good way, you helped me think about my grandfather and I appreciate that.
Casey Doyle: At the end of the day, BentProp is really all about the families: that connection that sons, wifes, daughters, and grandkids have with their father, husbands and grandfathers. It's not about finding a wreckage. It's about letting people connect. I'm glad that you got the chance to do that a little by thinking about your grandfather.
4. If this has struck a nerve with you, please consider giving to the BentStarProject, which is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and the fundraising arm of the BentProp.org project.
5. If you shop on Amazon, you can use Amazon Smile, you can essentially donate to the project by just using the Bent Star Project Limited and by doing this, it doesn't affect your price on any products, Amazon donates half a cent on every dollar that is spent.
6. All photos are courtesy of the good folks at BenProp.org and we thank them for the use of them.
An additional note from Casey Doyle: There is one favor I would like to ask. For reasons beyond my own understanding, I forgot to mention the incredible efforts that Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Delaware, and the Coral Reef Research Foundation have brought to the search over the past couple of years. These dedicated scientists, engineers, and graduate students have opened a whole new world of search capabilities for the team over the last few years. Through their technology and tireless work both in Palau and in the States, we are years ahead of where we would be otherwise. It is imperative that they receive that credit which they more than deserve. I consider them all "BentProppers," so perhaps that is why I failed to mention their institutions individually.