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Last Flight of Bomber 31

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: January 14, 2003

 

Bomber 31 homepage

On March 25, 1944, a U.S. Navy bomber disappeared into the fog over the Bering Sea heading for a Japanese target. Fifty-five years later it has suddenly reemerged with a remarkable tale. NOVA travels to the plane's final resting place to unravel the mystery. Using clues found at the crash site and the latest forensic techniques, a U.S. government team gets to the bottom of this half-century-old disappearance.

Taking off from Attu in the Aleutian Islands at the height of World War II, Bomber 31 was on its way to attack a Japanese outpost guarding the northern approach to Japan's main islands. The mission was part of a largely forgotten campaign in the Pacific war—a bold diversion to convince the Japanese that American forces were preparing to invade from the north, forcing the imperial command to deploy valuable resources to defend that front. At the same time, Allied forces under General Douglas MacArthur were making the main push from the south.

Of the five planes in Bomber 31's squadron, one crashed on take-off, and three completed the mission. Bomber 31 and its seven-man crew went missing for more than half a century.

Then in 1999 the U.S. embassy in Moscow received a surprising package: half a dozen photographs taken by a Russian historian, showing the wreckage of a World War II-era American bomber discovered on the slope of a volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia. How the plane got there and what happened to its crew are mysteries that only deepened as NOVA arrived with investigators from the United States to explore the remains—the first recovery team of its kind allowed in Russia.

At the outset, all that was known for certain was that this was Bomber 31, confirmed by the type of aircraft—a U.S. Navy PV-1—and the faded "31" stenciled on the tail. The party included a ten-person U.S. Army recovery team, headed by forensic anthropologist Ann Bunch. The United States is unique among governments in spending $100 million a year to bring home the remains of missing crew members. (For more on this effort, see Bringing Home MIAs.) Also participating were Ralph Wetterhahn, a Vietnam veteran and military crash investigator, and Tom Rains, who was only ten months old when his father disappeared on Bomber 31's final mission.

The trail of evidence leads to a strange story told by a Russian geologist who chanced on the wreckage in 1962 and remembers finding four bodies. At that time the Kamchatka Peninsula was the site of an ultra-secret Soviet military base. Alerted to the presence of the plane, the KGB took charge and probably dispersed the wreckage to disguise it from U.S. spy satellites. What they did with the bodies is a mystery. After scouring the site, the recovery team finds small bits of bone, which are sent to the United States for DNA analysis in hopes that the half-century-old fragments can be matched to relatives of missing crew members.

Also at the crash site, Wetterhahn finds telltale evidence of the plane's last moments. Battle damage on the engines shows that Bomber 31 was in distress, and an unexploded bomb implies that it had not had time to perform its mission.

Working backward from Bomber 31's assigned target—the Japanese base at Shumshu in the Kuril Islands—Wetterhahn takes NOVA through a likely scenario that brought the plane and crew to a daring landing and a heroic last struggle.

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The ill-fated Bomber 31 in the Aleutian Islands.




Last Flight of Bomber 31 Web Site Content
Bombers of World War II

Bombers of World War II
A brief history of ten classic American bombers.

Tour Kamchatka

Tour Kamchatka
Explore this rugged, 800-mile-long volcanic peninsula.

Bringing Home MIAs

Bringing Home MIAs
The U.S. effort to find, identify, and bury all lost service personnel.

Identifying Remains with DNA

Identifying Remains with DNA
Find out why mitochondrial DNA is so useful to forensic scientists.



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