NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11 News) – More than 73,000 Americans who fought in WWII are still missing. Until recently, that number included a group of Marine aviators.
A family from Lucas, Tex. traveled thousands of miles to the South Pacific to help find these heroes and bring them home.
On April 22, 1944, Lt. Walter Vincent was a 20-year-old Aviation Navigator with the VMB-423 Seahorse Marine squadron. He made a last minute decision that stormy night that would be one of his last. He boarded the twin-engine bomber taking off from the South Pacific Island of Vanuatu when he didn’t have to.
“The actual navigator of that crew was ill,” explained Lt. Vincent’s niece, Kim Anderson. “They had scheduled another man to take that place.”
Years later Kim and her husband, Craig Anderson, met the man who was supposed to take the place of the sick navigator.
“And, he said, ‘Vince’, they called him Vince, tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I really need some hours. Do you mind?’ And he stepped away and let Uncle Dub [Walter] go.”
Family members said they “never heard anymore.”
But, documents show the military sent a jungle expedition a month after the crash to find the plane. They did and filed a report on it a month later.
“In the fog of war, that report got lost,” Craig said.
Lieutenant Walter Vincent’s family had always assumed he and his crew crashed in the South Pacific Sea until Craig put together the keys that uncovered what was all but buried on a jungle mountainside for more than 60 years.
“It wasn’t more than six months after I started looking into it [that I] decided this might be the plane,” he said.
Craig never met Walter Vincent known as “Dub, short for the “W” in Walter. Dub was his wife’s uncle.
“He was my daddy’s youngest brother; only brother. The baby of the family,” she said.
Kim never met Dub either but her mother, Georgia Kendall, remembers meeting him in 1943. He was her future brother-in-law.
She was working as a stenographer in Oklahoma at the time. He stopped by to meet her.
“He said, ‘Well, I gotta see the girl my brother keeps talking about,’” Georgia remembered with a laugh.
She never saw him again.
Dub would have been 89-years-old this year. Georgia is one year younger.
The family never talked about Dub, not until Craig started digging into documents and reports about the plane and traveled, with his family, from Lucas to the vast and dense jungles of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu to see if he could find the plane himself.
The group set out to see the aircraft that several others already had. A Texarkana man named Dan Bookout was one of them. He traveled to Vanautu seven times between 1987 and 1994, looking for the crash of a single engine aircraft.
On one of the trips, he discovered Lt Vincent’s twin engine, PBJ-1D, the Marine’s version of a B-25 bomber.
Bookout made a note of the plane’s serial number and turned it over to the Joint POW MIA Accounting Command (JPAC).
“JPAC thought the serial numbers belonged to a plane they believed had crashed at sea. They sent a group of four during the late 1990′s to confirm what Bookout had stumbled onto and see if a recovery of the remains was feasible,” Craig said.
Nothing came of it.
Dan Bookout wrote a book, “Search For The Lost Black Sheep,” about his search.
Craig read it and became friends with Bookout in 2005. That was around the time Craig decided he should travel to the crash site to stir interest in the recovery of Lt. Vincent and his crew.
“Kim thought I was crazy,” Craig said with a laugh.
Kim remembers telling Craig, “You’re crazy. And, you know I don’t like heights. You’re talking about walking on edges of rocks in the jungle.”
But then Kim said she realized, “He was led to do that. And, he had never done that before. And, I decided to jump onboard and follow his lead.”
Their group included Craig, Kim, their daughter Brooke, by then a First Lieutenant in the Navy, Brooke’s husband Max and Dan Bookout. They enlisted the help of the natives and a translator. The natives speak Bislama. Craig described it as French pig Latin.
He would say, “Paul, where’s the plane?”
“He’d say, ‘Hemme plane. Blong long big mountain,” Craig remembers.
The walk through the dense jungle was the most difficult part of their journey.
“We were very slow walking through the jungle. And, these natives go walking through the jungle like you and I go walking up the hall. It’s nothing to them. They’re barefoot and carry a big machete they call a bush knife,” Craig said. “We’d rest about every 10 minutes because it was difficult hiking.”
With the help of the natives, the group found Lt. Vincent’s plane. Craig was elated.
“All along, this plane was sitting there on Espiritu Santo and it was just forgotten.”
They found a propeller, airplane wing, and various engine parts – all evidence of a violent crash.
“I mean, the plane hit at 255 miles an hour and exploded,” Craig said.
“It was just a rock cliff at the top of this mountain,” Craig said pointing to a picture. “And the plane in fog, or rain, or bad weather just ran directly into it and kind of fell back down the mountain.”
The documented 2007 expedition prompted the military to send an excavation team to recover the remains and personal effects of the entire crew.
“We showed them family members, middle-aged people from Dallas could walk to this crash site,” he said.
It took 68 years, but Lt. Walter Vincent finally came home. He was buried just this past May in Oklahoma.
“You could see what had been accomplished by our trip. That these guys were coming home,” Craig said.
You could call it “fate” the night Lt. Walter Vincent lost his life. Kim calls it providence that helped them find him.
“It was a God thing. It was. Everybody wants to be brought back home.”
The remains of two servicemen from the crew have yet to be buried. In October, unidentified remains from all seven crew members that died in the crash will be buried together during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
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