Though reader interest in World War II never seems to wane, many of the books about the period are nearly indistinguishable from others, similar tales of well-known battles and the heroic men and women who fought them. Not so this first book from Bryan Bender.
In a series of alternating chapters, the author, the Globe’s national security reporter, tells an inspiring story about a missing World War II pilot and the team that took on the task of tracking him down using advanced forensic science and bottomless determination.
The saga finds its starting point with Charleston, S.C., native Marion Ryan McCown Jr., a Marine Corps pilot who fought in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese. When McCown, who was assigned to the USS Nassau, was shot down in his Corsair over the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, he was assumed lost, but the military was unable to confirm his fate.
Bender then shifts to the early 2000s and introduces readers to George Eyster V, the conflicted son of a military family. Eyster initially felt unsuited to serve and was reluctant to continue his family’s long tradition, which dated to the Revolutionary War. Eventually he relented, “dutifully playing his part supporting his father’s calling and striving to meet his parents’ high expectations,” and was deployed to Iraq.
Witnessing the violence and deaths of comrades left him disillusioned about America’s place in the war. Eyster planned to leave the Army but was offered an assignment with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a little-known, Hawaii-based division of the Department of Defense charged with recovering the remains of MIA soldiers from the nation’s wars.
“JPAC kept records on nearly eighty thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines listed as missing in action,” writes Bender of the organization’s difficult, often frustrating work. “The vast majority were lost in World War II, followed by Korea and Vietnam.”
JPAC proved to be the perfect avenue for his desire to serve, offering an appeal he couldn’t find in combat. “In every other assignment he was expected to be an instrument of destruction, to be prepared to inflict as much damage as possible on America’s enemies,” writes Bender. “This place was about putting things back together.”
Though his team failed to find their target’s remains on his first mission, Eyster remained “emboldened by the experience” and enthusiastic about playing his part in the “nation’s commitment to its defenders — at a time when the bonds between those who were serving in uniform and their fellow citizens seemed to be fraying.”
Continuing his missions in the dense, often-unnavigable jungles of Laos, Vietnam, and other areas of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Eyster moved up the JPAC ranks and eventually picked up the lead on the McCown case, which had proceeded for years in fits and starts.
Bender provides the requisite background on both McCown and Eyster, their families and their motivations for enlisting, sections that occasionally drag —
Once the author reaches his discussion of JPAC and its complicated machinery, however, the narrative momentum increases.
As the stories of McCown and Eyster gradually twine closer and closer, the pacing steadies out as Bender delivers intriguing details on the Pacific Theater, especially the action taking place around the Solomon Islands and New Guinea (“there were more Americans missing in New Guinea than anywhere else”), the area in which McCown went down.
The endlessly complex mechanics of each of JPAC’s missions — which can involve dozens of soldiers, specialists, anthropologists, and scientists, as well as local laborers to sift through dirt for dog tags, fragments of bone, and other pieces of evidence — makes for transfixing reading, and Bender does a fine job humanizing his subjects within the chaos of war and the highly unpredictable environments JPAC investigates.
Bender neatly ties up the narrative with a fitting conclusion to this unique, uplifting war story about sacrifice, dedication, and hope strung across decades and generations.