Authors: Wil S. Hylton
The sun was creeping past its zenith as the small boat puttered through the water. Bailey laid the photos down and pulled out a map. He studied the surrounding landscape as a realization hit him: The photos didn’t match Kayangel because they
Kayangel. There was another atoll
just five miles north and nearly the same size. The islanders called it Ngaruangel (
), but it was virtually unknown to the outside world. In fact, it probably did not appear on World War II maps. If the trawler had gone down on Ngaruangel, aviators like Bush would have written down the name of the nearest atoll. That would explain why, in fifty years of diving Kayangel, no one had seen the ship. It was never there.
It took only a few minutes to speed north to the Ngaruangel reef. As the boat drew close, Dave Buller dropped his magnetometer into the water, crouching over the handheld monitor to watch for signs of metal. Bailey picked up the photos again, comparing them with a new horizon. They motored slowly along the edge of the shoal, and as they moved, Bailey saw the transformation unfolding. Like the shifting lines of a kaleidoscope, his perspective on the landscape morphed until it matched the pictures.
Hey!” he cried out to Buller
, “we’ve gotta be almost on top of it!” But even as the words came out, he heard Buller calling back: “I’m getting hits!”
There was a palpable tension as the boat pulled to a stop and the team began to suit up.
It’s almost too easy
, Bailey thought. They had been on the water just a few hours, and in Ngaruangel for only a few minutes. But the combination of pings on the magnetometer and a match with the photos made it difficult to tamp down expectations. As the team stretched into neoprene wetsuits, strapped on weight belts, and slipped into tanks, Pam Lambert hit the water first. Scannon dropped in behind her, swimming down hard through the darkening water to maximize his time on the bottom. After forty feet, he saw the seafloor and righted himself in the water. He blinked and stared at the landscape around him.
The wreckage was unmistakable; it was everywhere. A dusty haze drifted across the massive hull of the ship, ripped open by the blast from Bush’s bomber, with its gear strewn in all directions and encrusted in half a century of staghorn coral. Scannon saw Bailey and Buller a few yards away, moving across the debris field together. He drifted over to join
them, following as they pointed out the telltale signs. Not only was the ship fitted with mounts for a seventy-five-millimeter cannon, but the cannon shells were packed into a ready box nearby, and the seafloor was strewn with thousands of rounds of linked machine-gun ammunition.
So they were armed
, Scannon thought. In hindsight, it seemed obvious. Only a fool would throw down his weapon as he boarded a tiny lifeboat with enemy planes circling overhead and an ocean of sharks below.
For thirty minutes, the team swept through the twisted metal, finally coming to the surface with whoops of joy.
None of them doubted
what they’d found. Whatever else the Japanese sailors had been—young, naïve, filled up with nationalistic bravado, even honorable in their own way—they had clearly been armed. By finding the wreckage, Bailey and his team had solved a fifty-year mystery and, they were now certain, exonerated a president. In the days ahead, as they returned to the States, they would broadcast their discovery on
for the world to see. Only Scannon would stay behind.
He picked up Susan at the airport, and over dinner on their first night, they nursed a pair of beers while Pat leaned across the table, whispering excitedly about the rush of discovery and having felt so close to history. By the time they returned to their hotel that night, they had decided to scrap their plans to visit tourist sites like the Blue Holes and Blue Corner. Instead, they would spend the next four days exploring World War II wreckage on the islands.
They hired a local guide, Hudson Yalap, to drive them into the hills and jungle, stopping to wade through elephant grass, past the ruins of Japanese encampments and the cindered spires of old radio towers that rested like dinosaur bones in the damp earth. And on their final morning, they boarded a small boat with Yalap and a second guide, Lucky Malsol, to visit underwater wrecks. Neither of the Scannons had any idea where the guides planned to take them, and as the boat slipped away from the dock, they stared forward at the open water, never imagining how long the journey ahead would be.
VEN AFTER HALF A CENTURY,
the waters of the archipelago were strewn with relics of war. In shoals that were sometimes just a few feet deep, a casual snorkeler could drift away from a hotel beach through the glimmering surf and discover a pile of unspent ammunition, or the barrel of a ship’s cannon, or even a whole Japanese seaplane resting on the sandy bottom. With a scuba tank, it was possible to swim inside the plane, climbing into the cockpit to tug at the controls and shoot down passing fish like a pilot in some aquatic fantasy.
With so many wartime wrecks to choose from, Yalap and Malsol might have taken the Scannons to one of the popular sites: maybe the Japanese mine-laying ship filled with stacks of military helmets, or one of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter planes crumpled in the shallows. But instead, the guides steered the boat to a bay just south of Koror Island, weaving a course between small islets before slowing to a crawl. Malsol guided the boat to the edge of a little island, not much bigger than a house. In the waist-deep water, colorful fish darted away from the hull. Scannon frowned. It didn’t look like a wreck site; it looked like a typical tropical beach.
This is nice
, he thought,
but why are we here?
Then he saw the wing. As Malsol pulled around a bend in the coral, the whole thing came into view at once: a massive strip of metal, at least fifty feet long and gleaming in the sun. The aluminum skin was peeled back in places to reveal a lacework of struts inside, and as Malsol lowered the throttle to approach it, Scannon called over the engine, “What kind of plane?” But the guide only shook his head.
There was a long silence as Malsol flipped off the engine and retrieved an anchor from the foredeck. Wavelets lapped against the boat. Scannon stared at the wing. As soon as the anchor hit water, he leaped over the gunwale, striding quickly toward the wing. He heard Susan behind him.
There was a propeller mounted on the leading edge, and as Scannon got closer, he could see that the blades were bent and fractured from
impact with the coral. A few feet away, there was a second engine attached to the wing, and Scannon felt his heart pound as the significance sank in. “
This was a four-engine plane
,” he whispered when Susan caught up. She nodded, and walked toward the second engine, crouching for a look.
“Pat,” she said. She pointed at the engine mount. He stepped over and peered in. There was a number stamped on a bolt—
, he realized,
not a character
—and beneath it, an ID plate with clear black lettering said “eneral Electric.”
Scannon felt a chill wash over his body. He was surprised by how much it really felt like a chill—as if the temperature of the water had plunged to nearly freezing. It began with numbness in his lower legs, then crept into his thighs, through his waist, and up his torso to his neck, until the skin on the crown of his head felt tight and his hair stood at attention, all the feeling in his body draining away.
This was an American plane
, he thought. Then he corrected himself.
This is an American grave.
As Susan moved toward the wide end of the wing, where the metal was gnarled from breaking free, Scannon circled to the opposite end and searched the shallow water for pieces of debris. Where was the rest, he wondered. There had to be more. He drifted into deeper water, where the reef dropped into a channel, and he followed the edge of the channel west for 150 yards. There was no sign of the plane. He turned and headed east, but still found nothing: not a fragment, not a scrap of metal, just fish and sand and coral. He glanced back at Susan, who was still inspecting the root of the wing, and he dropped into the water to swim a few yards into the channel, scanning the bottom for signs of the wreckage, but there were none. By the time he turned back, Susan was climbing into the boat.
, he realized,
it’s just another wreck.
Of course it was—she’d grown up in Singapore and Bangkok, where her father worked as an oil executive. For years she had spent summers and holidays swimming through debris fields in the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, and little inlets and waterways so remote they didn’t have names. Since then, she’d been
on wreck sites from Tahiti to South Africa. She had joined an archaeological expedition to study shipwrecks in England from the fourteenth century. By the time she and Scannon met in the 1980s, she had a collection of cannonballs from her travels. She would later say that she found the wing interesting, and Palau pleasant enough, but she didn’t particularly care to see either again.
As Susan settled into the boat, Scannon’s gaze drifted back to the wing. Nothing about the experience was familiar to him. He glanced at the small island just behind the metal, its limestone cliffs rising fifteen feet to a tangle of vines and small trees on top. Without knowing where he was going or why, he called for Susan to wait; then he was splashing toward the island and scrambling up, grabbing clumps of dirt and roots until he reached the top and, with a final surge, rolled forward into the jungle.
It was another world. Under a thick canopy of leaves, the air was wet and cool, and it was streaked with narrow blades of light that sliced past fluttering birds and giant spiders looming on five-foot webs. The roots and vines were so thick, he could only crawl through on his belly, and he slithered deeper into the island, studying the ground as he went. Even a strip of aluminum, he thought, even a single bolt would show the wreckage was there. He wriggled across sharp branches, through piles of fallen leaves, his fingers biting into the soil, his knees dragging in the mud, but he found nothing more than an old wooden crate filled with green sake bottles.
After thirty minutes, Scannon turned back. He dragged himself to the edge of the island and splashed down into the water. On the boat, Susan and the guides were watching him and shaking their heads. Mud caked his face and wetsuit, and his hands were scraped raw. He scrambled back through the water and climbed into the boat. Malsol started up the engine and began to pull away.
Scannon flashed an apologetic smile, then stared back at the wing, watching as it disappeared behind the island. Then he slid into his seat, oblivious to the cheerful patter of Susan conferring with the guides.
Something inside him was changed, but he couldn’t place what. 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. Somewhere nearby, young men died. They had come spiraling down in a plane with one wing and probably either died on impact or drowned in the sea. Did anyone know? Was there a record of what happened? Had someone come to find them? Or were their remains still resting in the carcass of the fallen plane? And where was the plane? Did their families know? Did they even care?
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 the islands; when he tried to describe the sensation that gripped him as he gazed upon the wing, words would always fail.
“I just came around that bend in the coral,” he would say, “and I was a different person.”
Scannon found himself drifting to the islands: at work, at home, and in between, the questions always lingered. Where was the rest of the plane, and how many other planes were nearby? The guides had taken him and Susan to another site, four miles north, where a lone American propeller rested in water so shallow that during low tide its blade poked into the air like a thin, gray beacon. Four miles was probably too far for the propeller to have come from the same airplane as the wing, but as Scannon asked around—at the hotel, in dive shops, and among various guides—no one seemed to know where either part came from, or where the rest of either plane was. There didn’t seem to be any record of the lost planes on Palau.
Now that Scannon was home, he could see that
there wasn’t much record of the air campaign
at all. The ground and naval battles against
Japan filled hundreds of volumes, from the intimate memoirs of Marines, to tactical studies of carrier battles, to popular histories of the island-hopping campaign by General Douglas MacArthur. For each of those battles, American men on ships and beaches were backed by a raging sky of planes, which pounded the earth and swooped low across enemy bunkers with a fusillade of bullets that blackened the midday sun. But the story of those fliers was always relegated to the margin, eclipsed by the gruesome infantry landings and the grandeur of the Navy fleet.
Then, too, Palau itself was missing from many accounts of the war. The islands were home to some of the most savage fighting in the Pacific, but most Americans had never even heard of them. Other island battles were much more famous but comparatively short. The horror at Tarawa extended for three blistering days; the fight for Iwo Jima, about a month; the battle for Okinawa dragged on for three months; and the eruptions at Guadalcanal, six. But the fight for Palau was spread across eighteen months of combat that dyed the white sand red. When historians did account for Palau, they tended to divide the battle into its constituent operations, like the naval strikes in March 1944, the Army Air Forces’ bombardment that summer, and the Marine invasion on the southern island of Peleliu in the fall. Yet on the ground those distinctions were meaningless; on the ground, the islands were simply at war—pummeled by ships and planes and landing vehicles, day after week after month, so that on the final day of the war, the north was still held by Japan and the south in Allied hands. No other Pacific island territory was contested so bitterly for so long. The fight for Peleliu Island alone was among the bloodiest engagements of the war. In his epic work
The Pacific War
, historian John Costello wrote of Peleliu, “
The bloody, grinding warfare
was to reach a savagery the 1st Marines had not encountered even in their long struggle on Guadalcanal.” At the National Museum of the Marine Corps, historians called Peleliu “the bitterest battle of the war.” And to veterans of Palau, the archipelago was simply “the Forgotten Corner of Hell.”