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OSU alumni travel into a South Pacific jungle to find an uncle and his B-25 bomber long considered lost at sea during World War II.
Story by Michael Baker
On the ascent out of the valley, an estimated hour slowly, agonizingly, turned into three. That easily happens in the jungles of the South Pacific.
The trail had vanished. Fallen branches and vegetation covered the jungle floor. The hikers’ boots sank 6 inches into the muck. Daylight turned dim beneath the overhanging canopy, tree limbs interlocked like a roof above their heads, leaving them sweaty, hot and claustrophobic.
The group’s lead guide — a member of a tribe that had carved out a village in the inhospitable terrain — cut a trail with a large bush knife. Another guide, the son of the tribe’s chief, dug toeholds with a small shovel so the American hikers could gain traction on the steep climbs.
Just when the trek seemed it would never end, OSU alumnus T. Craig Anderson and his team spotted what they had traveled over an ocean and hiked for three days to find: a wrecked World War II B-25 bomber.
“That was amazing,” Anderson says. “It just popped out of the jungle at me, and I was practically standing on the wing. It was just an adrenaline rush.”
Until that moment, the plane and the seven Marines aboard when it disappeared during a training flight on April 22, 1944, were considered lost at sea.
Anderson’s wife, Kim Vincent Anderson, an OSU alumna, is the niece of 2nd Lt. Walter “Dub” Burt Vincent Jr., who was on the bomber when it crumbled to the jungle floor.
The search for Dub had driven the Andersons deep into the interior of Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu.
The bomber’s discovery opened the final chapter of a mystery nearly 70 years old. In May 2012, it closed when Vincent returned home to Tulsa and was laid to rest with full military honors.
“It’s just sheer joy and a peace that it’s all over,” Kim Anderson says. “We did this. We brought him back to his family.”
The Last Flight
Marine Bomber Squadron 423, known as the Seahorse Marines, specialized at being an irritant to the Japanese. The squadron would go on strafing and bombing missions to clear the way for ground troops and eliminate dangerous Japanese positions, according to Miles Morgan, editor of the Seahorse Marine Newsletter and son of a Seahorse pilot.
Vincent’s flight on April 22, 1944, was a night training exercise out of the Seahorse base in Luganville, Espiritu Santo. Rain fell heavy and the wind blew hard out of the south as 1st Lt. Laverne Lallathin taxied PBJ-35087 for takeoff into the wind.
Second Lt. Dwight Ekstam, co-pilot; Cpl. John Donovan, radioman; Cpl Wayne Erickson, gunner; Cpl. John Yeager, gunner; and technical Sgt. James Sisney, radio maintenance, joined Lallathin and Vincent on the flight.
That Vincent was with those six men was a bit of a fluke. The crew’s regular bombardier was ill. Vincent had volunteered to fill in because he needed the flight hours.
From what the Andersons could piece together, Vincent was just the sort to volunteer. Born in Bartlesville, Okla., Vincent was 9 when his family moved to Tulsa. He attended and played basketball for Will Rogers High School. After America entered World War II, Vincent enlisted in the Marines.
At 21, Vincent found himself in the South Pacific during a critical time of the war. The Allies were making advances in the South Pacific and in Europe — in a little more than a year, Germany and then Japan would surrender.
On April 22, 1944, Allied forces in England had begun Exercise Tiger in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. About 2,000 miles northwest of Luganville, the Allies launched Operation Persecution and Operation Reckless against the Japanese holding the northern coast of New Guinea.
And that night in Luganville, PBJ-35087 took flight in a blinding storm with Vincent and six others aboard.
Author Dan Bookout, a retired chiropractor and licensed pilot who documented several Vanuatu crash sites for a book, says it’s possible a hard tailwind pushed the bomber off course when it turned north.
Bookout, who accompanied the Andersons to Vanuatu, is working on a book about the search for Vincent.
“It was a hell of a storm they took off in,” Bookout says. “Raining and lightning. They probably couldn’t see anything.”
At about 3,100 feet traveling nearly 230 mph with little to no visibility, the mountain cliff must have seemed to appear from nowhere.
“This airplane hit the cliff face at a tremendous speed,” Bookout says. “That airplane simply disintegrated and burned up.”
There is a report from a few weeks after the crash that the plane had been located, remains buried and “secret and confidential gear” destroyed by a Marine search party led by Maj. John Palmer.
“The plane, freakishly enough, appears to have struck the exact center of this rock wall,” Palmer reported. “It must have been on a westerly course and just failed to clear the top of the mountain.”
But that report was not followed up and may have been misplaced as the Seahorse Marines left the island and fighting intensified in the South Pacific.
“A month after the crash, they were gone from the island,” Craig Anderson says. “I think that was one of the factors that led to all the information on the crash being lost.”
The military designated the crewmen and the plane as lost at sea, which is what the family believed for about six decades.
Vincent’s family wouldn’t learn much more until 2005. Craig Anderson, an accountant living in Dallas, had begun assembling a packet on Vincent for an upcoming family reunion in Tulsa.
Kim Anderson is from Tulsa. For much of her childhood she had heard stories of her uncle. At first, they called Vincent by the initial letter of his first name, “Double-u,” and then they shortened that to “Dub.”
Vincent and his plane being lost at sea was not talked about or questioned. The memories, especially of the day military officials brought news of the crash to the family’s Tulsa home, were too painful.
Craig Anderson joined the Vincent family in 1978 when he married Kim. The couple had met in 1976 at OSU when Craig was a senior accounting major and Kim was a freshman. Craig graduated in 1977 and went to work for a firm in Oklahoma City, near his hometown of Spencer. Kim left OSU, and the couple later married in Tulsa.
Craig Anderson heard talk of Uncle Dub, but found there were few reminders that he ever existed. Little remained except a wartime letter home, some photographs and a Purple Heart, all stored away in an old box.
“I’d never heard of Seahorse Marines or what kind of plane it was or how many were in the crew,” Anderson says.
Anderson turned to the Internet. A Google search found the website of the Seahorse Marines. He spoke with a few men who served with Vincent and others searching for the flight. He found out more about the circumstances of the crash and was directed to Bookout, a Navy reconnaissance pilot in the 1950s.
Bookout had written Search for the Lost Black Sheep, documenting the eight-year search for the remains of 2nd Lt. Wayland Bennett, whose plane also crashed in Vanuatu.
“Looking for an airplane in a jungle is really hard,” Bookout says. “Looking for a specific airplane in a jungle is a nightmare.”
During the search for Bennett, the author estimates, his team must have “stumbled across 40 other airplanes.” They would write down their findings and location, and report it to the military.
Bookout says he first reported the location of Vincent’s plane about 25 years ago. “We moved on at the time because it was not our airplane of interest,” he says.
Skeptical at first, Anderson agreed to meet Bookout at a Denny’s restaurant in the author’s hometown of Texarkana, Texas. The conversation went on for hours and Anderson became convinced Vincent’s plane was not at the bottom of the ocean; it was on a mountain surrounded by dense jungle.
Anderson asked Bookout if he wanted to return to Vanuatu and try to find the crash site.
“Get me a ticket and I’m there,” Bookout responded.
In 2007, Bookout traveled to Luganville with the Andersons; the couple’s daughter, Navy Lt. Brooke Desrochers; and her husband, Navy Lt. Max Desrochers.
Anderson promised the military that if his team found the crash site, they would not remove anything. The goal was to show the site was accessible, Anderson says.
“One of our hopes was that we could go to the crash site and get some interest in it,” he says.
The first day of the three-day trek was a slow, rough drive with Craig Anderson and Max Desrochers riding in the back of a pickup truck on a road — two tire-sized ruts — winding northwest into the interior of the island and past the Jordan River, the longest river in Espiritu Santo.
They stopped at a tribal village, where Kim Anderson and Brooke Desrochers were a bit taken aback by some of the customs they had to observe while in the village. The women were asked to stay in the truck until the men were introduced, and they were not allowed to look directly at the village men.
The team met Chief Robert, who by chance remembered meeting Bookout during one of the author’s previous trips. The chief’s son Paul agreed to help the searchers. He assembled a team of seven tribal members to lead the hike into the jungle.
“They were barefoot or in flip-flops,” Craig Anderson says. “They also were constantly waiting on us.”
The second day’s hike took the team west, through at least two more rivers. After nine hours of hiking, the team set up a base camp at another indigenous village to rest before the next day’s hike into the valley and up the side of a mountain.
“I knew when to bow out at base camp,” Kim Anderson says. She knew the hike would be hard and didn’t want to slow down the others.
Craig Anderson, the Desrocherses, Bookout and five tribal guides headed out the next morning. Bookout fell and cut his leg, and while it wasn’t a bad cut, Bookout urged the family to continue without him while he turned back to base camp.
The hike to the crash site would get tougher.
“It was 60-degree slopes,” Anderson says. “It was more than I had expected, to say the least. Everything was just up and down. … It always reminded you how far out of your comfort zone you were.”
Brooke Desrochers was about 20 yards ahead of her father when she first spotted the crash site and called out.
“I took off almost running,” Anderson says. He saw a rusty propeller sticking out of the side of the hill, and then, “It was just a flurry of activity all of a sudden.”
They recorded serial numbers of airplane parts, took videos and photographs, left a memorial marker for the dead Marines and had a few toasts with the crew’s favorite drink, Scotch whisky, before emptying the bottle onto the ground.
After a difficult return hike down the steep slopes and a return flight to the U.S., Anderson reported the findings to the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
JPAC recovery specialists launched excavation missions in 2009, 2010 and 2011, recovering remains of all seven crew members. DNA testing at JPAC headquarters in Hawaii verified the identities of the crewmen.
“What has struck me the most is the dedication and the professionalism of the people that do these recoveries,” Anderson says. “It truly is ‘no man left behind.’”
Bookout sees a couple of other heroes.
“I’m talking about Craig and Kim,” he says. “I consider them to be the heroes of the story.”
On May 5, 2012, four World War II-era fighter planes flew over Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa.
Craig Anderson and his daughter, Brooke Desrochers, wearing her full-dress uniform, walked behind Vincent’s U.S. flag-draped casket being escorted by a Marine honor guard and a bagpiper. The procession moved about a half mile from the chapel through the cemetery to the grave.
Before Dub’s remains were lowered, Marines handed the folded American flag to Vincent’s sister-in-law. Georgia Vincent Kendall, 88, is the only living family member to have met Dub, visiting with him once in Oklahoma City when he was enlisting in the Marines.
About 30 family members and family friends, along with a couple of dozen others — many veterans who just wanted to pay respect to a Marine returning home 68 years after his death — gathered for Vincent’s burial.
Desrochers, who had flown with Vincent’s remains from Hawaii, was honored by the response of veterans and current military members.
“Seventy years later, and they’re taking care of him like he was one of their own,” she says.
“They have each other’s back,” Kim Anderson says about those military members. “It’s just a brotherhood.”
Some of Vincent’s remains will be interred in October at Arlington National Cemetery in a common casket with those of his fellow Seahorse crewmen.
In Tulsa, Dub’s remains were buried in a plot reserved by his parents in 1945. It took nearly seven decades to get Dub from the isolated mountain in the South Pacific to his final resting place, next to his mother and father and other family members.
“There was a lot of help along the way,” Craig Anderson says.
“We were the only ones crazy enough to go over there once we found out it might be there. … I think this is what Dub’s parents had hoped for. It just took 68 years to get him home.”