Excerpted from Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of WWII.
On a warm spring morning in 2008, a rumpled archaeologist named Eric Emery stood at the edge of a massive barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and glared down into the water.
All around him, the barge was a hive of activity. Two dozen young men scurried about the deck, preparing for the day's events. At one end, a small group huddled by a contraption made of two‑by‑fours, tugging at its joints and examining its design. At the other end, a long steel ramp descended to the water, with a speedboat parked at the bottom and a cluster of scuba divers on board. The rest of the barge was mostly filled with cargo-shipping containers, each one placed just far enough from the others to divide the deck into a series of hallways and rooms. One of the rooms was set up as a medical station, with an examination table in the middle and a stretcher propped against the wall. Another was arranged like a dive locker, with masks and fins and wetsuits hanging from a taut line. A third room functioned as a communications hub, with blinking machinery and streams of wire that converged on a small wooden desk, where a young man fiddled with the knobs of a yellow plastic box. The air all around was dank and heavy with morning rain and the sky was a gray camouflage of clouds and the tips of small islands peeked through a swarthy mist on the horizon, but standing at the edge of the barge Emery seemed oblivious to it all -- the mist, the noise, the men, the islands -- glaring down into the water as if daring it to a duel.
Even at a glance, it was obvious that Emery was unlike the other men on board. They were young and fit and clean-shaven, with tattoos of mermaids and dragons that snaked across long sinews of muscle. Emery was a dozen years older, stocky and grizzled, with deep lines etched around his eyes, his beard at least a week grown in, his hair an unruly explosion of wire, and his faded khaki T‑shirt matted to his chest by a combination of rain and sweat. He smiled little and spoke less. From time to time, one of the other men would pause for a moment to study him, as if noticing their leader for the first time. Later, when they thought back on Emery, they would marvel at how little they knew him, how little he said or gave away, even at the end.
Most of the men also knew little about one another. Many had never met before and would never meet again. They had been pulled together from all four corners of the fighting forces -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- with each man chosen for his individual talent. There were deep-sea divers trained by the Navy's experimental school in Florida to endure underwater pressure so extreme that the depths were considered secret. There were bomb defusers just back from Iraq with tired eyes and easy smiles and the latest operational intelligence on IED design. There were Air Force historians trained to identify, from the smallest fragment of metal or plastic, the make and model of any U.S. aircraft built since 1941. There were forensic scientists who could do the same with bones, studying a single sliver or shard to determine where it belonged in a human body, and the age of the body to which it belonged, and sometimes even the gender or ethnicity. There was a physician on board who specialized in the mystical healing properties of superoxygenated fields. There were fishermen equipped with massive spears to haul parrot fish and unicorn fish from the depths and grill them over an open flame on deck. Together, they would spend six weeks on the barge, and then they would disperse again: to the desert, to the jungle, to the rain forests of New Guinea or the airless peaks of the Himalayas. But here, now, in the deep cerulean nowhere of the Pacific Ocean, on a tiny archipelago more than a thousand miles from the mainland, they had come together for a single purpose: to bring up what they found below.
Of course, no one knew just what that was. That was the question; that was the mission. The coordinates of the barge had been guarded for years by the American and island governments. Only a few divers had ever been down, and those who had weren't sure what they'd seen. Or rather, they knew what they had seen, but they couldn't imagine what they hadn't. There were secrets still buried in the sand below, mysteries they had come to uncover. But the islands had a way of keeping their secrets. Sometimes they seemed to keep time itself.
On a clear day the islands appeared to sprinkle the water like a thousand emeralds on a plate of blue glass, each one glittering and distinct in the brilliant tropical sun, but from the sky you could see that it was an illusion: the islands were not islands at all. Beneath the surface, they were all fused together into a single underwater mesa, which rose ten thousand feet from the seafloor and leveled off just below the waterline. What seemed to be, from ship or shore, hundreds of individual islands were really just the slight hills and rises on the mesa top, bumps that rose a fraction too high and breached the open air, basking in the equatorial heat and decorating themselves with vines and flowers and carnivorous plants. In between those islands, the water remained shallow over the mesa, a pale blue expanse that shimmered like a ghost against the black ocean all around. The shallow water was warm, too, and brimming with ocean life -- six-foot clams and sea snakes, octopodes and sharks, all taking refuge from the surrounding depths.
The people of the islands had also come for refuge. Anthropologists believed they were a mixture of races drawn from a thousand miles all around, lost sailors and adventurers, prospectors and rogues, converging over centuries on the coral shores to form a people in the jungle. The people did not have a creation story; they had many. One told of a girl who ate too much and grew enormous and toppled over in the water, the curves of her shoulders and breasts and knees forming the various islands. Another told of a young woman who offered food to the gods when they were hungry and was immortalized in death as the largest island, with her children arrayed around her. Many of the island myths featured women; women held special power on the islands. Women elected the tribal chiefs. Women controlled the tribal land. There were many princesses on the islands, each with a special necklace made of shells.
The anthropologist Emery knew the islands. He knew their history, their waters, their traditions, their stories. He had studied the islands with the singular zeal of a man who needs to understand. He had traveled to the southern end of the archipelago, across turbulent water in a small boat, to seek out the island of Peleliu (pella-loo), still littered with the wreckage of war, with tanks and trucks racked on their sides from the aerial bomb blasts of World War II and the skeletons of Japanese soldiers lingering at the mouths of caves before a roiling cacophony of bats within. Emery had tasted the island delicacy of bat soup, a whole dead animal floating in broth, and he had made a pilgrimage to the marine lake at the center of another island, where a special breed of jellyfish evolved without stingers. He had stripped off his shirt at the edge of the water to dive in, his body suspended in a haze of gelatinous yellow orbs, a strange euphoria washing over him as vivid as a fever dream. He had studied the islands' colonial history, stories of mineral exploitation and plunder, and he knew in some private place that what he needed from the islands was more precious than any stone. What he needed, he could not find anywhere else. What he needed, no one else could find.
Eric Emery's journey to the islands marked the end of a personal quest. It was a journey that began a decade earlier, ten thousand miles away, on a small helicopter crossing an alpine lake in the treeless paramo of the Andes, with a terrifying shriek as the chopper fell from the sky, its blades colliding with the water, his lungs filling as his mind went dark. Or maybe it began even before that, at the old gas station on Lake Champlain, filling up scuba tanks with his father and casting off in the ragged sailboat, the one rule etched forever in his mind: Never stop breathing. It was a rule that Emery had only broken once, and had been trying to mend ever since. In a sense, he had spent his whole life preparing for this mission. In another sense, he'd already died for it.
In that, he knew he was not alone. All across the American landscape, men and women were waiting for him to return from the islands with answers. Some had been waiting all their lives; some felt they were waiting for their lives to begin. When Emery stood on the barge in the din and clatter of men at work, in the warm, wet air, under the scent of the shallow sea, he was forever conscious of those men and women and all that they had lost. He thought of the young soldiers who vanished on these islands six decades earlier, and of the haunting stories their families passed down through generations. He thought of the first military team that came to find them in 1945. He thought of the strange, pale doctor from California who had taken up the search, returning to the islands year after year for reasons Emery could only imagine. He thought of the retired colonel in Hawaii who had built a special Army unit to find the lost men, hiring hundreds of scientists and explorers who were trained as Emery had been. Few of those scientists, officers, explorers, and family members had ever met. Few of them even knew the others existed. They were all separated by time and distance, by fate and grief and chance, yet he knew that, like the islands themselves, their separateness was an illusion. Beneath the surface, they were all fused together; together they formed an archipelago of grief rooted in this forgotten place. Now the islands called them back.