The Pentagon’s global hunt for MIAs vs. the hunt for vintage WWII “warbirds”

The cockpit of a P-47D Thunderbolt salvaged from Papua New Guinea.  The U.S. military said its pilot, Lt. Marion "Carter" Lutes, is an active MIA case.  It asked the PNG government and wreck-hunters to leave the site alone.  Now it sits in a restoration shop, south of Sydney.

The cockpit of a P-47D Thunderbolt salvaged from Papua New Guinea. The U.S. military said its pilot, Lt. Marion "Carter" Lutes, is an active MIA case. It asked the PNG government and wreck-hunters to leave the site alone. Now it sits in a restoration shop, south of Sydney.

Today, the Boston Globe finally ran a story I worked on for several months last year.  

It’s about the secretive crossroads of prized WWII aircraft, or warbirds, and the collectors and museums that want them, the wreck-hunters who find them in remote corners of the world, and the U.S. military’s effort to find and recover 88,000 veterans who never came home, including thousands of pilots and air crew of those same planes. 

It’s a complicated tale, and  here’s the result:

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2009/05/25/remains_are_lost_in_race_for_relics

Let me give some background.  Early in spring 2008, my friend and Globe staff reporter Bryan Bender (who covers the Pentagon) and I got word that we were going to Papua New Guinea to spend a week with the U.S. military’s teams that search and recover the remains of missing servicemembers from past wars.  These two sites the military were excavating that we’d see were both WWII pilots of F-4U Corsairs. (Read the 3-day series, Finding the Fallen, here: http://www.boston.com/news/specials/mia/)

So when I Googled “WWII” and “Papua New Guinea”, instantly a network of websites emerged discussing the rich aviation history of PNG and the thousands of war wrecks that still litter the islands there.  It took about 5 minutes and three phone calls to realize there was another story out there.  So we extended our stay in Australia to dig deeper into this.

I considered this story on wreck-hunters and MIAs to be a spin off to last year’s seires “Finding the Fallen”, which ran on Memorial Day weekend, 2008. Little did I know it would take this long to get in in the paper!

For this piece, Bryan and I went from the jungles to the museums, to the air shows, from Australia to Oshkosh. 

I visited with Papua New Guinea’s national government authorities who are responsible for the war relics there, both in their offices in Port Moresby and on the site of a U.S. wreck recovery near Rabaul, New Britain Island.  We visited with the man considered to be both one of Australia’s most prolific and controversial wreck hunters and respected vintage aviation restorers, in his own workshop.  I chatted in person with one of the most legendary figures in warbird history, Charles Darby, and several wealthy warbird owners and rabid warbird fans for two days at the Oskhosh airshow. 

We met face-to-face with U.S. Navy and Air Force officials in Washington and at the Pentagon who are responsible for these leftover war materials.  Bryan and I spent the afternoon with Australia’s defense officials in Canberra who are in charge of recovering their own MIA “brothers” occassionaly still found on New Guinea. 

I also spoke with UNESCO experts in cultural heritage property protections, visited with museum officials at the Pima Air & Space Museum, in Tucson, Ariz.; talked with the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s archivists and restoration facitilites guys, walking through their warehouses and workshops past some of the most classic and rare aircraft in the world.  We talked with the US Air Force museum director, and heard from several aviation archaeologists and historians. 

And I interviewed several warbird owners, traders, and restorers  of the planes and their rare parts.

It’s a lot to try and cram into 2,400 words for a daily newspaper. 

More will come, though.  I’m determined to paint a fuller picture of what’s going on out there, and it will emerge in the coming months, perhaps in this and/or other publications, such as my own.

Bryan today gave an interview with more on this topic, on Public Radio International (PRI), The World:  http://www.theworld.org/node/26532.

It’s a hot topic, for sure.  Warbird fans are rabid, with the motto “keep them flying!” about all planes everywhere.   The U.S. seems on a noble, but no-win, mission at an extreme expense to recover remains of missing WWII troops, which many do not understand.  Yet, the families of WWII missing who are alive and well today still hold vigil that their brothers and sons and fathers and uncles will one day come home – just as if they died today in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

But it’s nice to get it started and out there.  Especially on Memorial Day.

 
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1 Comment

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One response to “The Pentagon’s global hunt for MIAs vs. the hunt for vintage WWII “warbirds”

  1. its very sad to know about the warbird .Lets give some justice on the military who died serving the country!!!

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