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Last Flight of Bomber 31

PBS Airdate: January 14, 2003
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: March 25, 1944: Seven Navy airmen embark on a top-secret mission that begins at the top of the world near the Arctic Circle.

RALPH WETTERHAHN (Crash Investigator): First of all, they show up at the aircraft. They do their pre-flight and scamper aboard the aircraft and start engines. Their faces are covered with grease to protect themselves from the frostbite.

NARRATOR: It's one of the most dangerous missions of World War II. They start the engines to warm up the plane and taxi through ice and snow to the end of the runway.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: There's a fuel truck waiting there to refill their tanks, to squeeze every drop of fuel inside those airplanes. At that point, they're 3,000 pounds over the maximum allowable weight for that airplane.

NARRATOR: Most of the weight is ordnance, bombs intended for Japanese targets.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: They refuel, and, with this dangerous smell of gasoline still in their nostrils, they crank engines and immediately release brakes.

NARRATOR: The plane, Bomber 31, rumbles down a makeshift runway, climbs up into the blinding fog and disappears. Decades pass and the fate of Bomber 31 is all but forgotten.

Russia, 1999: Fifty-five years after Bomber 31 vanished, a mysterious package turns up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Inside is a letter and a half-dozen photographs of an American World War II plane wreck found in remote Siberia.

Could this be Bomber 31? If so, where are the remains of its brave crew? From these ruins would emerge a remarkable tale of courage. Secrets would be revealed and a chapter in the history of World War II rewritten. The Last Flight of Bomber 31, up next on NOVA.

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NARRATOR: In 1944, five Navy airplanes were readied for a mission as secret as it was dangerous. Even today, few people know about it. The first plane took off without incident. The second plane, Bomber 28, was piloted by James Moore.

JAMES MOORE (Pilot, U.S. Navy): We took with us about 1,400 gallons of gas, I think, and the plane wasn't built to carry that much without the bomb load and everything that we had on it. But we tried it anyway, and we got away with it a few times.

NARRATOR: This time the takeoff was sluggish.

JAMES MOORE: We could never get any altitude. We'd get 50 feet in the air, and we could just...the plane was just mushy.

NARRATOR: At the end of the runway, Moore's plane crashed into the bay and exploded.

JAMES MOORE: I felt water coming up, and I had flight boots on, and one of them was jammed under the rudder. And I got...I pulled my foot out of the boot without unzipping it. And I came up on the surface, and I yelled, "Let's go over to the life raft!" I was, of course, yelling for the other four fellows but never heard anything from them. Everybody after the cockpit was killed.

NARRATOR: The last plane to take off that night was Bomber 31. With the fire from Jim Moore's plane lighting the way, Bomber 31 took off into the appalling weather. The flight began at the tip of Alaska's Aleutian archipelago on a tiny island called Attu. The bombing target, 750 miles to the west, was another tiny island called Shumshu at the northernmost tip of the Japanese Kuril Islands. But Bomber 31 never reached its destination and the seven brave men on board that night were never heard from again.

The pilot was Walt Whitman of Miami, Florida. The navigator, Donald Lewallen, was married with a young daughter. Sam Crown was the radioman. Clarence Fridley, the plane's mechanic, was still a newlywed. Gunner James Palko was orphaned as a child; he lied about his age to join the Navy. Jack Parlier voluntarily swapped places with another weatherman that night; it would be his first and only combat mission. And the co-pilot was John Hanlon of Worcester, Massachusetts.

What was the purpose of this tragic mission? With the war raging in the South Pacific, why was a World War II bombing raid needed so far north near the Arctic Circle?

The story begins a year earlier when the unthinkable happened. For the first time since the War of 1812, American territory was actually captured. A Japanese flag was raised over the tiny Aleutian island of Attu.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Historian, University of New Orleans): It's one of the most uninhabitable terrains in the world. It's filled with volcanoes. It's bogs that you could just sink in. And servicemen died. American servicemen died just walking on the tundra and collapsing into the ground.

NARRATOR: Retaking this grim territory became a strategic imperative for the United States.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: The fear was that, with the Japanese in control of Attu, they could build a giant air base there. And from that spot, they could wreak havoc on cities like Seattle and all the way down to San Francisco. It was a very serious threat that the Japanese were there. We did not want to give them that launch pad, that springboard in which to bomb civilian centers in the United States.

NARRATOR: In May of 1943, the fight for Attu began. It would turn out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific campaign. After nearly three weeks, the exhausted and beaten Japanese soldiers clutched their grenades and pulled the pins. It was the largest mass suicide of the Second World War.

With Attu back in American hands, a makeshift airbase was quickly assembled to protect the island from future invasion. But Attu was a dangerous place to fly out of. Year-round gale force winds and dense fog created the worst kind of flying conditions. Navy airmen remember it well.

RUDOLPH TONEY (Radioman, U.S. Navy): It was cold, always foggy, it's always damp and everything.

ROBERT GRACIA (Navigator, U.S. Navy): We seemed cut off from all the rest of...everything else was down south in the warm Pacific, you know? And here we are freezing ourselves up there.

NARRATOR: From the Battle of Midway to the U.S. offensive at Guadalcanal, the war was raging in the South Pacific, led by General Douglas MacArthur. In the cold north, the airmen of Attu felt cut out of the action—but not for long. American military strategists were hatching a brilliant plan to trick the Japanese into thinking that Tokyo was about to be invaded, not from the south but from the north. The airmen of Attu started bombing raids on the basically uninhabited islands of Shumshu and Paramushir at the tip of Japan's Kuril Islands.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: It was an ingenious part of the American plans to do bombing campaigns of the Kuril Islands. The idea was to keep the Japanese off guard, to do these flights, to do these bombings, to make them paranoid that there was going to be this massive frontal attack coming from the Aleutian Islands.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: It caused the Japanese to move squadrons and naval forces to the northern Kurils to protect against an attack or potential attack by the United States from the north. And in that process, the...General MacArthur's forces that were coming up from the south had less Japanese resistance to deal with. And it's as simple as that. But it was very important, and was carried out by such a small force, a small unit in terms of the aircraft involved. But the contribution was immense, and the story hasn't been told.

NARRATOR: Bomber 31, like the rest of the squadron that took off that night, was a PV-1 Ventura, originally designed as a precision bomber. It was a resilient airplane as Navy radioman Rudolph Toney recalls.

RUDOLPH TONEY: Oh, it was a rugged plane. There was no way you could tear it up, I don't think, if you tried. And we tried!

NARRATOR: Attu was 750 miles from Shumshu, which is just south of the Russian Peninsula of Kamchatka and its capital city, Petropavlosk. It was one of the longest over-water bombing missions of the war, and danger was everywhere. If an aircraft ditched in the brutal Bering Sea, the chances of the crew's survival were virtually nil.

And then there was the ever-present threat of Japanese fighter planes to deal with. The PV-1 was fast enough to outrun Japanese fighters. Twin 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines gave it a top speed of 322 miles per hour. Equipped with machine guns, these heavy bombers could also be transformed into fighter planes if the crew met up with enemy fire.

Did Bomber 31 ever reach the Kuril Islands? Or did it encounter Japanese gunfire? Did it drop into the Bering Sea or crash land in some remote location?

The fate of Bomber 31 and its crew would remain a mystery for more than half a century, until one day in 1999 when this plane wreck was accidentally discovered by a Russian historian working in Kamchatka. The plane lies in ruin today on the steep slope of a volcano. And for most of the year it's covered in snow and ice. Could this be the long lost Bomber 31?

That's what Ralph Wetterhahn wants to find out. A former Vietnam veteran and military crash investigator, he has come here to unravel the mystery of Bomber 31. Familiar with World War II aircraft, Wetterhahn first wants to identify what type of plane this is. The gun turret tells him what he needs to know; this is indeed a PV-1.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: Now, here we have the top gun turret on the PV-1. And you can see it here, the Plexiglas(TM) is gone, and the two 50-caliber machine guns have been removed.

NARRATOR: Wetterhahn looks around for the section of the fuselage that might indicate which PV-1 this was.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: Okay, this is the stabilizer.

NARRATOR: Below the bureau numbers, at the bottom of the stabilizer, the number "31." Lost to America for more than half a century, Bomber 31 has finally been found. In the airframe, Wetterhahn spies a small reminder of the men who flew in this plane.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: ...what appears to be a Jefferson nickel.

NARRATOR: A U.S. coin, frozen in time.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: And it reads 1943. So there's no doubt in my mind that this belonged to one of the crewmembers.

NARRATOR: But what happened to the crewmembers? There are no bodies near the wreckage. No skeletal remains are evident.

Finding out what happened to the crew is as vital today as it was 55 years ago for the families left behind. For Kate Imperial, the wounds of World War II have never healed. Her brother, Sam Crown, was the radioman on Bomber 31. She vividly remembers that sad day in March of 1944.

KATE IMPERIAL: I was making cookies to send Sammy when we got the word, when mother got the telegram that Sammy was missing in action.

NARRATOR: Sam's son, Tom Rains, was only a 10-month-old baby when his father's plane disappeared.

KATE IMPERIAL: Tommy, here is the...I believe the last letter that mother received from Sammy before he was missing in action.

TOM RAINS (Son of Radioman Sam Crown): And I see in reading this he's talking about a reunion, and that he was confident that both Grandma and he and you would be reunited very soon. I want you to know that I carried a copy of this around with me in my wallet until it fell apart. I bet I had it 25 or 30 years until it just disintegrated.

NARRATOR: For Tom Rains, the discovery of his father's plane has stirred up some strong emotions.

TOM RAINS: I always thought that there was always that possibility that one day someone would knock on the door and it would be the father that had been missing for 15, 20 years, whatever it might have been.

NARRATOR: Tom wants to see for himself the place where his father disappeared. He and his wife Kathy will soon travel more than 9,000 miles from Ohio to Kamchatka. It will not be an easy trip. He also hopes that some remains of his father's body will be found so he can receive a burial in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

TOM RAINS: We need a pack mule to get us there.

NARRATOR: The United States is unique among governments, spending 100 million dollars a year to bring home the remains of its missing servicemen from around the world. Also en route to Kamchatka is a ten-person Army recovery team, led by forensic anthropologist Ann Bunch. Her job is to search for any remains of the crew that can be found and take them back to the United States for identification.

ANN BUNCH (Forensic Anthropologist): I've done 15 recovery missions. I had a good friend whose father was missing in action in Vietnam. So I think about her every time I'm out on a mission like this, because I know how she felt about her father and what it meant to her when we actually did recover and identify his remains. So I get motivated by that, because I know it matters to people.

NARRATOR: Eight hours after leaving Hawaii, the recovery team arrives in Petropavlosk, the closest city to the crash site in Kamchatka. It's a fairly modern Russian city, but just on the outskirts, the terrain becomes rough and inaccessible. In this land of volcanoes there are few roads, so the team had to switch to helicopter transport. Four weeks of camping and work supplies required many trips. After the campsite is set up, they still have an arduous climb over the shoulder of the volcano to get to the crash site.

Getting here is only half the battle. Kamchatka is a perilous place. It has one of the densest populations of brown bears in the world. The recovery team also hired a half-dozen local hunters to keep a 24-hour vigil for bears. And politically, Kamchatka was once considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. During the Cold War, an ultra-secret Soviet military base was located here. This area opened to foreigners only a decade ago. This is the first recovery mission of its kind permitted in Russia.

At first sight, Ann Bunch and her crew are dismayed by the state of the wreckage. Why is this plane such a mangled wreck? Why can't they see any human remains nearby? It's a mystery dating back to the days of the Cold War. The American recovery team heard rumors in Petropavlosk that the wreck of Bomber 31 had first been sighted in 1962 by Russian geologist, Mikhail Khotin. He remembers a largely intact plane and several human skeletons.

MIKHAIL KHOTIN (Geologist): There were four people lying around the plane. Someone would yell, "Here's another man. There's another man over there." They were showing above the ground.

NARRATOR: Two of the dead men were wearing wedding rings.

MIKHAIL KHOTIN: When I saw that there was a name inscribed on one ring, my first impulse was to contact the family. I thought I should let them know that he was dead.

NARRATOR: But the families were never notified and the rings never returned. In fact, no one was told except the KGB. Colonel Konstantin Golumbovsky from the Russian Air Force has tried to get to the bottom of the Soviet side of the story.

KONSTANTIN GOLUMBOVSKY (U.S.-Russia POW/MIA Commission): Everything was handed over to the KGB along with a report on the aircraft. Where did all those things end up after that? We couldn't find any traces of them. There are no documents.

MIKHAIL KHOTIN: The more questions we asked, the more stern looks we got. They made sure we forgot.

NARRATOR: Colonel Golumbovsky also learned that the Soviet military was called to the crash site.

KONSTANTIN GOLUMBOVSKY: According to the geologists' report there were unexploded bombs lying near the aircraft. So in order to prevent any fatalities, a military team detonated all the ammunition that hadn't exploded.

NARRATOR: But the state of the wreckage suggests the KGB went further than they needed to make the area safe.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: When the KGB came up in the 1960s, they cut the airplane into sections and moved things around. Probably to disguise the plane from U.S. spy satellites. That's conjecture, but we do know they were up here and we do know they blew...you can see...see this crater here? This is more than likely one of the areas where they blew up a 500-pound bomb. So you can tell that probably this wreckage was maybe 30 or 40 yards further up the hill at some point.

NARRATOR: A safety sweep of the entire site is required before the recovery team can start looking for human remains. And they find just what they were afraid of, an unexploded 500-pound bomb. The area is roped off because the bomb is still potentially dangerous.

But this bomb is also an important clue. If Bomber 31 still had ordnance aboard, it's unlikely the crew were able drop their bomb load—but why? Did they meet up with enemy fire before reaching their target? And will the clues found here solve the mystery of what happened to the seven crewmembers?

ANN BUNCH: I think that the idea that seven are here...Given the intelligence reports I have my doubts. So I'm already biased. But I'm not going to stop looking for them until we feel that we've excavated the whole site thoroughly.

NARRATOR: Finding human remains in a field filled with rusting relics from a war long past is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But today, even tiny bone fragments can help identify the crew.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: During World War II, bodies were identified by people looking at the teeth, trying to get dental records, or finding the dog tag of a dead soldier—very hard. But now we have DNA, and things have improved immensely. Even a fragment of a remain can open up, through DNA, a whole window of clues of who that person is. So it's a very exciting time in the science world to close, for the Defense Department, a lot of these cases that have been open for 50 years.

NARRATOR: Like the case of John Hanlon, the co-pilot on Bomber 31.

DOCTOR: Okay, Mary, we're going to draw some blood now.

MARY PORCIELLO (Sister of Co-Pilot John Hanlon): Okay.

NARRATOR: Mary Porciello was John Hanlon's sister. Crucial parts of her genetic make-up are the same as her brother's. Mary's blood will be sent to Ann Bunch's lab. If they find any remains in Kamchatka, the DNA will be compared to see if it matches hers.

Blood will be collected from living relatives of all the crewmembers of Bomber 31—the closer the relationship, the better the match. Mary hopes that DNA will finally provide the answer to a question that has haunted her for a lifetime.

MARY PORCIELLO: I think I dealt with the death a long time ago, but the finalization of what really happened to him is important now. They gave their lives for this country, and I think that's the least the country can do...is finalize their death.

NARRATOR: But no human remains have been found yet. After cutting away part of the plane, the recovery team scours the cockpit, hoping to find some evidence of pilot Walt Whitman or co-pilot John Hanlon. They only detect slivers of human bone.

Now, underneath the cockpit, Ann Bunch is looking at a parachute. It's an important clue. A parachute inside the plane suggests that at least some of the crew were still in the plane when it crashed. For weeks, they will sort through the rubble and sift through the dirt. No clue is too small in their effort to identify the seven airmen.

Ralph Wetterhahn is finding more evidence that the plane must have encountered the enemy before reaching its bombing target.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: On this particular engine you can see battle damage under the prop spinner. And there's a big hole, and an explosion has occurred up in here. So we know it was hit with something. And it could be anti-aircraft fire from the ground, or it could be a zero or a zeke—an aircraft shooting at the bomber. The engines had some type of battle damage.

NARRATOR: Here, Wetterhahn finds evidence that a projectile came through the exhaust stack and penetrated the area below, crippling the airplane.

After a thorough examination of the wreckage, Wetterhahn has unraveled more of the mystery of Bomber 31. After leaving Attu in abominable weather, it's likely that Bomber 31 met up with Japanese fire just before reaching Shumshu. With critically damaged engines, the pilot turned toward Kamchatka hoping to make the airport in Petropavlosk, less than 100 miles away. But the weather was also against them.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: He may have had fog down in the valley below...he couldn't see. And he saw this flat area out in front of us here, and he brought it in and put it down, very level. His last moments, his last full measure was some kind of fabulous flying, to get that airplane in here.

NARRATOR: But what happened to the crew? Did they all go down with the plane? Or did some of them try to parachute out and maybe get captured by the Japanese?

A few days after Bomber 31 disappeared, rumors began flying among the men of the squadron about what might have happened. Some remember Tokyo Rose, the voice of Japanese propaganda, reporting on the incident.

ROBERT GRACIA: Tokyo Rose had a story. She said that the pilot's body had washed up on the shore and everything, that they'd probably shot it down and everything.

NARRATOR: Others reported that Tokyo Rose broadcast the name, rank and serial number of every member of the crew, and even used John Hanlon's nickname, Moose. How could the Japanese have such information?

MARY PORCIELLO: Three different people heard three different stories. One was that the bodies had been recovered. Another was they had their flight jackets, and the third was that they had them prisoners. So you know there's always that possibility that if his remains are not on the plane...then where was he? Did he bail out? What else could have happened to him?

NARRATOR: There's no hard evidence that any crewmember of Bomber 31 was captured by the Japanese. But Ralph Wetterhahn decides to fly over to Shumshu to see it for himself.

The Kuril Islands became Russian territory in 1945, after the war was over. From the helicopter, he can see clear signs of American bombing not far from an abandoned Japanese airstrip.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: That's pretty typical of what you'd see when a bomb, when an aircraft drops bombs out of a bomb bay; they're going to string along. And this would be one area that they would want to hit.

NARRATOR: The bombing raids of the Kuril Islands proved to be some of the toughest missions of World War II. Fearing an American invasion, these Japanese islands were heavily defended by air and antiaircraft guns in bunkers and boats. This, combined with bad weather, took its toll on the U.S. airmen.

Ralph Wetterhahn tries to imagine what a bombing mission from Attu to Shumshu might have been like.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: They lived and flew out of an island that was simply a rock that was covered in fog and ice, climbing into weather that would test the most proficient navigator, the most proficient pilot, and having to do it through 750 miles over this cold, leaden Bering Sea.

JAMES MOORE: We didn't have very good...any navigation aids that were, you know, reliable up there much, and there weren't any reliable maps. It was, you know, virgin territory.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: They had to fly five hours in just bad weather until their 10 minutes of stark terror over the target area. So the gunner would have test-fired his weapons, and those little sounds would start coming through, and the heart rate's going to be going up, and the adrenaline starts to pump. And as you get in close to the island, you start to see the flak come up, and then everybody's eyes are out looking for bogies.

RUDOLPH TONEY: Keep your cool until you get out of the battle, and then just shake all you want to. As long as you're in battle, keep your cool.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: And they know this is it. This is the 10 minutes where we either get it done, or they get it done to us. And then turn around, without fighter escort, and get out of there in one piece, and do the same thing all the way back. And a lot of them didn't...and they knew it taking off, that, you know, there was a good chance they wouldn't come back.

NARRATOR: On their return trip to Kamchatka, Ralph Wetterhahn and Pentagon investigator Jim MacDougall encounter an incredible site. It's the wreck of another World War II airplane. Wetterhahn and MacDougall decide to investigate.

JIM MACDOUGALL: I'll tell you what, take a look at the list of PV-1s we had last year when we went up on Mutnovsky.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: Well, here we go, right here.

JIM MACDOUGALL: Well, Ralph, look right here, "PV-1." So we've confirmed that much. And we thought it was a PV-1 and that confirms that.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: What do you got down here? Look.

JIM MACDOUGALL: That looks like 3, 30, half a zero, 30, probably the squadron number.

NARRATOR: This PV-1 belonged to a different squadron. It was forced down by anti-aircraft fire during a raid on August 20, 1944. Miraculously, its crew escaped with only minor injuries, including radioman Rudolph Toney.

RUDOLPH TONEY: When we started walking down toward the beach, three Russian soldiers come with rifles, and Jack remembered it in Russian was Amerikanski, and when he said "Amerikanski," that Russian grabbed him and bear-hugged him like he was a long lost brother.

NARRATOR: Rudolph Toney's pilot deliberately crash-landed on Russian territory, knowing his crew would be safe. Russia allowed crippled American aircraft to land on its soil. Because the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan, the airmen would be officially imprisoned, but secretly returned to the United States.

Not so lucky was the crew of Bomber 31, including radioman Sam Crown, father of Tom Rains. After crossing 15 time zones, Kathy and Tom Rains have finally reached Petropavlosk. So close to the place where he lost his father, Tom's expectations intensify.

TOM RAINS: I certainly hope that things work out, that we're able to find some remains for my dad. I would be disappointed but I am certainly looking forward to this.

NARRATOR: Now they have to get on a helicopter for the short trip to the crash site.

TOM RAINS: This is it...a long time coming.

NARRATOR: These 45 miles will turn out to be the most difficult of their three-day journey. The flight gives Tom an idea of the harsh terrain his father's stricken bomber had to negotiate, especially during the winter, with high winds and temperatures well below zero. But even in the summer the weather is temperamental and can change by the hour, especially in the mountains. A heavy fog moves in and the helicopter crew becomes lost. They land to get their bearings.

HELICOPTER PILOT: The coordinates didn't work.

HELICOPTER CO-PILOT: The course, the course and kilometers, I need to know right now.

TOM RAINS: It seems pretty apparent that the pilot does not know exactly where to go. The coordinates we thought we had locked in, and it's still not working very well. It's very, very frustrating and very disappointing, too.

NARRATOR: Back at the crash site, the weather is still clear. And after three weeks of work, the recovery team finally has some luck. One of the local hunters spots what he thinks could be a grave.

TRANSLATOR 1: He said that it looks like a grave, you know?

TRANSLATOR 2: He said that it looks like the same hole near...up on the hill. So it looks weird with the sharp edges.

ANN BUNCH: Just follow the edges.

NARRATOR: Perhaps the KGB buried some remains back in the 1960s when they desecrated the site. Wishful thinking? Ann tries to keep an open mind.

ANN BUNCH: I never think that anything's a red herring anymore. I always follow every lead, just because if you have a doubt then you've got a bias. And I just think that you shouldn't go into any scientific endeavor with any bias at all. You have to keep an open mind up until the last day.

PRODUCER: So what are you going to do about it?

ANN BUNCH: We'll have to follow through and dig these depressions.

NARRATOR: Three potential gravesites are marked out, and the team starts digging. Will the remains of radioman Sam Crown or the other crewmembers be unearthed here? It will take most of a day to excavate these gravesites. As time passes, anticipation turns to disappointment. No human remains are uncovered.

ANN BUNCH: It looks as though this was a lead that I'm glad we went and looked into, but it's not going to lead us anywhere as far as remains are concerned.

NARRATOR: But suddenly, only a few yards closer to the wreckage, there's a genuine breakthrough.

ANGEL VELEZ: Ann!

ANN BUNCH: Oh, yeah, it's definitely a vertebra, thoracic vertebra.

NARRATOR: Several important bones are found. Out of respect to the families, Ann asked NOVA not to film the bones as they were removed from the ground. Later she explained what they found.

ANN BUNCH: Okay, what I have here is a sketch—map—very schematic, of the site. Basically, different things are going on. We have the excavated area, which is this square shape here, and within that we have the outline of the wreckage. And the little letters dispersed around the wreckage are actually where remains were found. And you can see they're clustered near the large piece of wreckage so I think that served as a protection for them from the elements, from other creatures that were around the area. We found remains there, human remains. And the most important, in my mind, were two right clavicles. I know from the anatomy of it—they're both right—that we have two people for sure represented at the site.

NARRATOR: The recovery team also found part of a flying boot with navigator Donald Lewallen's name on it. But it was discovered about 300 yards north of the crash site—why so far away?

ANN BUNCH: It shows the site was disturbed by animals, and it was probably dragged away from its initial location. So it's another indicator that there was disturbance going on here.

NARRATOR: The most likely animal to have removed human remains from the crash site is the brown bear. And there are signs that the bears are coming closer to the campsite.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: These animals dominate here, and they are at the top of the food chain. They're above us, and they would make small matter of us if they encountered us in this field here. And it's actually sort of invigorating to be out here amongst the animals and realize that you don't run the show here. And they're telling you that by coming into our camp and doing this—it's their country and they own it; we are guests here.

NARRATOR: Did bears play a role in the disappearance of the crew? Could that explain the scarcity of human remains at the crash site? It's a chilling thought, and not one that Tom Rains has to contemplate. After traveling for 72 hours, he has only just arrived at the camp. But a fierce storm has followed him there. Overnight, several tents belonging to the recovery team have blown over.

ANN BUNCH: I think it got around 40 degrees last night, and the tents are not holding up, so there's a lot of concern about people's health and safety right now. And that's obviously the first thing we have to take care of, before anything else happens.

NARRATOR: Ann's team will catch a Russian helicopter to Petropavlosk. They'll come back in a few days, when the weather clears, to finish up and secure the site. Then, they will return to the laboratory in Hawaii with all the bones they've collected. On board is Major General Roland Lajoie, chief of MIA recovery missions in Russia for the U.S. military.

ROLAND LAJOIE (U.S.-Russia POW/MIA Commission): Now are you okay here? Or do you want to go back on the helicopter?

TOM RAINS: Nope. We want to see the site.

ROLAND LAJOIE: You have not been there yet?

TOM RAINS: No.

JIM MCDOUGALL: You're ready to spend another night here? Because they may not get a second flight in, the weather's turning for the bad.

TOM RAINS: I know, yeah. If we have to, we'll slug it out, but I want to get to that site.

ROLAND LAJOIE: Tom, you really shouldn't have high expectations that there will be significant skeletal remains of your dad. I think the nature of the crash, the 56 years that have elapsed, the prevalence of wild animals around here, argue against significant remains. But hopefully, there will be some remains that with the help of DNA can be specifically linked to your bloodline, and then those will get a proper resting spot in Arlington.

TOM RAINS: If it's just one, that's all it takes. That's all I'm really interested in. And that would be, I think, enough closure. With the military funeral at Arlington, that would certainly be enough for me.

NARRATOR: The fate of Tom's father and the rest of the crew of Bomber 31 will be determined here, at the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii, where the bones will be processed. The only way to identify individual remains from these small fragments of bone is to extract their DNA. It won't be easy. The bones are old and so is the DNA.

MARK LENEY (Forensic Anthropologist): We'll then try to cut a five- to eight-gram sample from...out of the bone. Don't necessarily need as much as that, but that would be optimum because there's probably not much DNA left in this bone because of the degradation.

NARRATOR: After the bone is cut into small pieces, it's ground up and put into a solution to release the DNA. It's then scanned by a computer and compared with the DNA from blood samples given by family members. They're looking for a genetic match between the two. It will take months to get all the results. But the preliminary reports are turning out better then the lab expected.

MARK LENEY: This first set came back with pretty nice results. We got a group of three samples together; they all have the same polymorphisms, so that's one individual.

NARRATOR: The second batch of samples contains unique sections of DNA that can be matched to a second individual. But many of the bone fragments collected at the site yielded nothing conclusive.

MARK LENEY: Then we have one outstanding sample still at the lab. They're working on that, and they said they're going to let me have the data as soon as it's ready.

ANN BUNCH: So we've got two individuals, possibly three, and then the rest will be in a group burial.

MARK LENEY: Yeah, I'd go with that.

NARRATOR: Sadly, Mary Porciello will not get the news she hoped for. None of the DNA matched hers. Her brother, co-pilot John Hanlon, was not identified.

They did establish a genetic link for two of the crewmembers: mechanic Clarence Fridley from Montana, and gunner James Palko of Wisconsin.

Tom Rains, finally arriving at the site of the wreckage, won't find out for some time that his father was not identified among the remains.

TOM RAINS: It seems so small. In comparison to the landscape and the mountains and everything, and...I don't know. I guess I was expecting it to be much larger for some reason, and on a much grander and larger scale than it is. And it seems so small and somewhat insignificant. Not much to show for seven crewmembers' lives. I guess my concern still is always about how they actually died. And hopefully it was quick. And maybe they died on impact. Because I can't really imagine in looking at this—how beautiful it looks and everything at this time of the year—how this place looks in March. It's got to be a pretty scary thing, especially if you are wounded or if you were hurt in the crash itself. Actually, I'm not too crazy even thinking about the possibility of what it might have been.

NARRATOR: But Ralph Wetterhahn has been thinking a lot about what happened on the last flight of Bomber 31. After examining the wreckage, he believes it met enemy fire before reaching its target on Shumshu Island. With the engines crippled, the pilots were looking for a place to land.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: My sense is they were crossing this valley trying to make it to Petropavlovsk about 35 miles to the north, where they'd be interned. And as they crossed the valley with both engines damaged it became apparent at some point that they were not going to make it. And looking to his right, Whitman probably saw this relatively flat area and turned into it. And he had one priority, and that was to not have a fire. He's got a bomb load, he's got tons of fuel on board, and he brings it in low, and he calls for Hanlon to shut off the mixtures and to shut off the fuel valve, and drops a little bit of flaps, and then the battery and generators come off. And in the last few hundred meters of silence, he brings it in and pulls up, touching down perfectly level. Both engine props dig into the deep snow. The engines are ripped from the wings, go underneath, and the aircraft continues on up the hill and comes to a stop. And there is no fire. They've done it.

I think the crew survived the landing, though some of them may have been injured. They had fuel to stay warm and a little bit of food. It looks like four died at the crash site. And the other three probably went for help at some point and perished in the appalling winter weather. And then, I suspect, the bears disposed of their remains. No one will ever know for sure.

NARRATOR: Japanese war records reveal that the airmen of Attu succeeded. They convinced the Japanese Imperial Command to divert about one sixth of their air strength to defend the Northern Kuril islands from invasion.

RALPH WETTERHAHN: These Navy men, they created a mission, and they made a difference. Because they could've all survived the war, sitting there on Attu, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes while the rest of World War II happened, and they didn't. They took part in it.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: A great nation never leaves behind its dead. You always go look for them, whether it's ten years or 20 years or 50 years. We owe it to them and to their families to identify those people, to bring their bodies back so they can have a proper burial here in the United States.

The families of all the crewmembers can request a military burial in Arlington cemetery. And then the case of Bomber 31 will finally be closed.

NARRATOR: More than 88,000 American service personnel are missing from conflicts dating back to World War II. Find out more about the U.S. effort to bring them home on NOVA's Website, at PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

Next time on NOVA, a freak survivor of evolution that outwitted extinction—is this our missing link? PBS presents, NOVA, Ancient Creature of the Deep.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

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And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last Flight of Bomber 31

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