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Home » Searching for a Lost Pilot of the Pacific Air War with Project Recover

Searching for a Lost Pilot of the Pacific Air War with Project Recover

This story comes to you from Derek Abbey, a veteran Marine Corps aviator and member of Project Recover, a team of volunteers, trained specialists, and professionals who locate and identify American POW and MIA from World War II and conflict zones around the globe. This is the story of Derek’s first expedition with the Project to find a fellow Marine whose plane went down in the Pacific nearly 75 years ago.

islands of Palau

I can’t tell you his name, because the US government hasn’t officially closed the books on his case. But in 2007, I set out to find him in the island jungles of Palau.

Prior to this mission I’d served as an F/A-18D Hornet WSO with the Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121—the Green Knights. In 1944, the Knights battled the Japanese in the Hornets of their day—the Corsair, Bearcat, and Skyraider.

Derek Abbey
Marine aviator Derek Abbey holds a Japanese soldier’s decaying helmet.

I learned about the Project Recover while serving with 121. They’d come into possession of a hand-drawn Japanese map which noted American crash sites. Based on data of lost aircraft, they determined that one of the crash sites was that of a Marine who’d served with the Green Knights in the South Pacific air war. Eyewitness reports gathered over the years suggested his F4U Corsair had gone down somewhere in the jungles of the island nation of Palau.

Rumors of his fate abounded, including one that he’d been captured by Japanese soldiers and paraded through the streets as a prisoner. I became fixated on finding him, this Marine from my squadron.

There are thousands of American World War II veterans who remain missing, and it’s the mission of the Project Recover to find and repatriate every single one. Founded in 1993 by explorer and researcher Dr. Pat Scannon, the project is a team of volunteers and specialists which mounts expeditions to search and recover the wreckages of downed aircraft.

While on a deployment to Iraq, I told members of my squadron what I’d discovered about the missing Marine, and my work with the Project. My CO was very supportive, and he allowed me the time off to join the mission.

The mission begins

I’d barely returned to San Diego before leaving on a flight to Palau. I thought about the months leading up to the trip, the planning, and the logistics, and how I’d soon be working with world- renowned researchers, specialists, and field experts to locate this aviator. I still wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to fit in.

Koror, Palau
Koror, the main commercial center of Palau.

The plane landed in the middle of the night. The entire Project Recover team met me at the airport, put a cold beer in my hand, and drove me to a local burger stand operating out of a camping trailer with a backyard gas grill. Our stomachs full of burgers and milkshakes, we headed to the hotel which served as our mission planning hub.

The next morning, I took in the view from the hotel room. Beautiful, clear water, and the thick green jungle under the rising sun. The temperature shot up even in the early morning hours, accompanied by a punishing humidity. A shine developed on my skin and lines of sweat formed across my shirt as I walked around Koror, the main commercial center. At a moment’s notice, the weather could turn sour, delivering a pounding, visibility-limiting rain. Bright red splotches stained the pavement—the curious result of chewing betel nut, a habit similar to tobacco, which produces a deep orange saliva people would spit onto the ground.

Pulling a latitude/longitude grid from the crude, hand-drawn map’s highlighted points was impossible. But with a little terrain association, we managed to develop a search area. It was the best use of Marine Corps land nav training I’d ever used.

Part of the work of locating viable search grids was spent talking to locals, asking if anyone had ever found wreckage or human remains. Good fortune introduced us to a man in his 80s, who’d been a teenager during the war. During one battle, he hid in a drainage ditch while machine gun fire and aircraft filled the air. He described a plane shot from the sky, which nosedived before crashing into the thick mangrove jungle.

We asked him if he saw Japanese soldiers go after the crash. Did they pull anyone out of the jungle?

No, he said.

Had anyone ever gone to investigate the crash?

No, he said. No one goes into that jungle.

mangrove covered islands

“I think I might have something.”

I was operating on Marine Corps time in a nation accustomed to leisurely island life. It took some getting used to. All I wanted was to get moving and start searching, but it took a while to get the boat sorted out.

Eventually we loaded and boarded the boat and made our way to the Rock Islands, an archipelago of jungle-covered limestone rocks in a sea of crystalline blue. At our destination, we had to climb off the boat by pulling ourselves up by the trees, taking caution to not slip on the sharp limestone. A fall could lead to nasty cuts or worse, broken bones. I imagined infantry combat on rocks like these. This was the terrain the Marines fought on when they landed on Peleliu, Palau’s most famous island.

The verticality of the island we’d selected to search made disembarking the boat a challenge. We clutched at trees, vines, and rocks, hoping the damp jungle air hadn’t loosened whatever we grabbed to hoist ourselves up. Once I reached for a rock and felt a pinch—I drew back my hand to find a crab the size of a football clawed onto my glove.

“Pulling a grid from the hand-drawn map was impossible. But with a little terrain association, we developed a search area. It was the best use of Marine Corps land nav training I’d ever used.”

Then there was the poison tree—basically poison ivy on steroids. Contact with the leaves causes scarring burns and rashes. To avoid it, we covered our bodies as much as we could. The odd thing is that no one other than Palauns seemed able to accurately identify the plant. Project Recover professionals have been traveling to Palau for over twenty years, and we still can’t point out the damn thing. At one point, just about every Project Recover member has had a poison tree encounter.

If the poison tree wasn’t evidence enough, we soon learned why no one travels into the mangrove jungle. The growth is so thick it blocks out the sun, making navigation nearly impossible. Vines and branches seemed to reach out to us, grabbing and tearing us away from whatever path we were on. We climbed, crawled, and hacked our way through, alongside Joe, a native Palauan and Project Recover member. We carried handheld radios to stay in contact.

Joe scouted ahead and later his voice came through the radio, his heavy accent a challenge to decipher. But he seemed happy.

“I think I might have something you are looking for,” he said.

He was just ahead of me, although I couldn’t see him through the vines.

It took me about ten minutes to go 100 feet. The jungle twisted and turned me about, and I laughed at the difficulty of it all, the simple inability to walk in a straight line.

I finally reached him and he turned my attention downward. There in the mud, trapped in place by roots, was a .50 caliber feed tray. The F4U Corsair had six .50 caliber Browning machine guns, three on each wing, and I recognized it instantly. Loading bullets into an aircraft hasn’t changed much in the last seventy years, so the shape of it was familiar to me.

decayed .50 caliber feed tray
The .50 caliber feed tray from the lost F4U Corsair.

We hacked the tray free from the roots and examined it. Unfired rounds lay encased in the metal. We spread out and discovered more pieces in the debris field, scouring the jungle for hours, eventually finding one of the actual machine guns, encrusted in rust and roots and mud.

Eventually we found a large piece of aluminum, caught standing upright in a mess of branches and vines, with a distinctive circular opening in the center of it. Now there was no question. This wreckage belonged to Marine’s plane.

Derek Abbey examining the feed tray

A moment of silence

How do you process something like this? Through correlation and elimination, we were able to determine this wreckage was what we were searching for, but after realizing it, my emotions were mixed. I felt joy to have found what I’d traveled there to locate, but a deep sadness at the knowledge that I was essentially standing in a gravesite. This was a place where a man had died, after all. A fellow Marine, a man from the same squadron I’d flown with. This was hallowed ground.

Fuselage from a Corsair wreck
Part of the Corsair’s fuselage. Note the distinctive circular opening for the canopy.

I imagine he was like many of the aviators in our squadrons today; rich with talent and drive. I know he had a love of country and strove to do what needed to be done. A difference between aviators then and now is they used to be a lot younger, although just as capable. In many ways more capable, figuring out a lot of things as they went along. Here was a man who was flying the F-35 of his day, one of the most advanced machines ever built by human hands at the time, and he was barely out of his teenage years.

.50 caliber machine gun encased in mud

I have no doubt that his time in the air was similar to the flying we’ve done in recent wars. He probably joked with his squadron mates all the time, but got serious when there was a mission to be done. I imagine him sitting around with his buddies prior to the mission which took his life, discussing what he’d do afterwards, like playing cards or going to chow.

We honored him by folding a flag there under the dense shade of the mangroves, and said a few words in his memory. I said the only thing I could think of as a way to honor a fellow Marine: “Semper fi.”

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency can only officially close a case upon successful recovery of the plane’s wreckage, or the pilot’s remains. Even with the evidence we discovered on this mission, the agency has yet to begin the recovery process, which is why he cannot be named. There are over 80,000 American veterans who remain MIA, and it’s a matter of prioritizing which case the agency, with its limited resources and personnel, manages to investigate first.

The flag folding ceremony at the crash site. From left: Bob Holler, Pat Scannon, and Derek Abbey.

And so, the pilot we honored in the jungle remains undiscovered, and unknown to the world. The flag we folded in the debris field of his Corsair sits in my home in a special place, and I look at it often. There are dozens more flags in the possession of the Project Recover just waiting to be delivered to their families upon official closure of their cases.

Last year, we had the privilege of delivering one of those flags to an aviator’s family, and seemingly the entire town came out to honor him. A ceremony took place at his high school, and the mayor came out alongside the pilot’s two sisters and former fiancé to say a few words. It was a memorial that couldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of the men and women of the Project Recover.

Project Recover members

Working with Project Recover has become a passion of mine. It’s a purpose I pursue alongside my regular work. When people ask me about it, I often get questions that don’t fully grasp the real meaning of what we do. We’re out there looking for aviators who’ve been missing for ages, who may have been lost to history, but not forgotten. People who ask me about it mostly tend to inquire about what it’s like to find airplane wrecks.

But we don’t just find airplanes. We find heroes.

About Derek Abbey

Derek Abbey served 23 years in the Marine Corps and retired in 2014. He has been a member of Project Recover for more than a decade and is a member of their Board of Directors. An avid outdoorsman and endurance athlete, he spends a great deal of time with his wife Michele in the National Parks across the nation, and is in the process of running a marathon in every state.

Learn more about Project Recover.