- - Sunday, October 27, 2013

By Bryan Bender
Doubleday, $26.95, 336 pages

As Pentagon correspondent for The Boston Globe, Bryan Bender must have cringed when the news broke. The backdrop for the final third of his new book is Hawaii’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), responsible for conducting forensic pathology in some of the world’s most forbidding terrain. But only weeks before publication, news outlets charged that JPAC’s ceremonial repatriation of long-lost veteran remains was largely a sham designed to deceive a credulous public.

Maybe: But the real shame will be if our endless quest for malfeasance obscures Mr. Bender’s compelling tale of inter-generational heroism. Its brilliantly conceived structure allows the author to intertwine stories of two unknown soldiers: Capt. Marion Ryan McCown, a long-lost Marine fighter pilot from the Pacific war; and Maj. George Eyster, Army Ranger and scion of a military family dating back to the Revolution. The heroes finally meet in the jungles of New Guinea, where Eyster, leading a JPAC detachment, finds McCown’s crashed Corsair and the few earthly remains spared by time.

Maj. Eyster is a helicopter pilot who seems unlikely to reach the highest ranks of his service. He graduates from ROTC, not West Point, transferring out of the infantry (traditional pathway to the stars) and into helicopters. He serves in Iraq but not until late 2004, after the initial rush of victory gave way to the long, hard slog of insurgency. Sent to bloody Fallujah, he tells his mother, “Downside is that I will be outside the security of the forward operating basesin the streets, not the safest of environment.” Or the choicest of combat assignments.

But George Eyster turns out to be a gritty, crackerjack pilot of the Kiowa Warrior, a light observation helicopter re-fitted with heavy weapons for close-in urban combat. The author tautly describes Maj. Eyster relinquishing control of the Kiowa to his co-pilot while targeting a fleeing insurgent. “As the Kiowa was flying about fifty feet off the ground, George turned his body ninety degrees intothe open side of the cockpit. He planted his right foot on the floor, bent his left knee and braced the heel against the seat. He carefully raised his M4 carbine and took aim at the speeding car below.”

In quieter moments, Maj. Eyster reflects on his own mortality as well as death witnessed often and at close range. “Why are we here? Why am I here? If I get killed, I’m gonna be really pissed.” The assignment to JPAC its own notably hazardous reward. The graves of downed flyers are often accompanied by a silent honor guard of quicksand, deadly snakes, “bloodsucking leeches, insects the size of your hand and wild animals” including boars and crocodiles.

But the author’s skillful inter-leaving of the two stories heightens the reader’s appreciation for Ryan McCown, a genteel product of Charleston society. A savvy reporter, Mr. Bender showcases his research skills while making Ryan live again through diaries, flight logs and letters to his anxiously waiting mother — still poignant a half-century later.

The distractions of dates and girlfriends cannot overcome Ryan’s growing stature as a naval aviator, one whose skills will soon be tested. If he and his compatriots were novices, then so was their assigned aircraft, the gull-winged Corsair constantly plagued by snafus. Prone to spin, stall and leak fuel into the cockpit, the Corsair was “officially considered a ‘failure’ by the Navy Department.”

While making do, Ryan’s squadron incurred a steady stream of training casualties even before deploying to the western Pacific in1943. During increasingly desperate aerial battles over Rabaul, Japan’s mid-Pacific Gibraltar, fledgling Marine aviators met their veteran Japanese counterparts, eager to shoot them out of the sky or to behead them later as defenseless POWs. The reader becomes Ryan’s co-pilot, experiencing the trauma of being shot down and the exhilaration of being rescued and reunited with his squadron. In January, 1944 Ryan flew “top cover” for a massive formation of Army bombers attacking Rabaul. He was never seen again. His mother kept her own vigil from her front-porch rocker, dying young from what some said was a broken heart.

His mystery remained unsolved for over 64 years until advances in forensic archaeology allowed the human remains at the New Guinea crash site to be certified as those of Marion Ryan McCown, USMCR. George Eyster led that mission but as it concluded, “He was struck by the thought that the young men and women under his command never knew the Marine pilots, who lived and died long before they were born. But just like the comrades they lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, they considered them their brothers.” As Bryan Bender reminds us in this master-work of war and remembrance, they are brothers who have come home again at long last.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel residing in San Antonio, is a military analyst and author on national security issues.

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