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  Features
     
    Lost no More

Lt. J.G. John ("Moose") W. Hanlon Jr. '41 was the co-pilot of the U.S. Navy PV-1 Ventura Bomber 31, which took off from Attu Island, Alaska, on March 25, 1944, headed for enemy targets in the Kurile Islands of Japan, never to return. The fate of Hanlon and the other six crew members aboard Bomber 31 remained a mystery for over 50 years.

March 25, 1944: Just after midnight. The ground was covered with snow; the air was gray and damp. Icy fog obscured the view and chilled the bones. The five Ventura bombers filled with "bats" - the military term for men who fly at night - shared a single mission: to help divert Japanese forces from Gen. Douglas MacArthur's troops fighting their way from the South Pacific to Tokyo. Each PV-1 was loaded down with several bombs plus sufficient fuel to complete the 1,500-mile round-trip route (known as the "Empire Express") from Attu Island, Alaska, to Shumshu Island, Japan and back. As a result, each plane exceeded the aircraft placard limit by over 3,000 pounds. Hanlon's plane was the last one to rumble down the 4,500-foot runway, lift into the air and disappear into the storm-tossed skies. And it never returned.

By David Treadwell

J.G. John ("Bill is gone."

Mary Porciello, a resident of Clinton, Mass., remembers her father saying those sad words when she returned home from her nursing school graduation that fateful night. "Bill" was what her family called her older brother, John, because there were so many Johns in the family. And Bill was a brother she'd always looked up to. "He was quiet and unassuming," she says simply - "a great person."

Elizabeth Prenier, a younger sister now living in Maine, remembers that a Navy personnel man came to the front door to report that her older brother was missing in action. "My parents were devastated," she says. "I still get emotional when I talk about it."

Patricia McMorrow - a third sister, who was only six years old when her brother disappeared - recalls her very first memory of him. "I was only three or four years old," she says, "and Bill was about 20 - and he decided that we needed some ice cream. He was big and strong, so he put me on his shoulders and carried me into Webster Square to get some vanilla ice cream - still my favorite flavor. When we got back, my family was all excited because they hadn't known where I was."

McMorrow remembers well the day that changed her family forever. "We lived on a farm outside Worcester," recalls McMorrow, who now lives in California, "and my dad would always come and pick me up at school in a big black Buick. The car didn't come to school that day, and I thought something was wrong. Later, when I finally got home, there was a neighbor at the house talking with my dad."

A Leader, an Athlete, a Friend

Bud Ryan '41 recalls his classmate John "Moose" Hanlon with great fondness. "He was jovial, pleasant, a wonderful guy," says Ryan - "very popular all over campus. Everybody knew the Moose."

Dick Cantwell '41, another classmate, remembers Hanlon's athletic prowess. "Moose and I played baseball and football at different high schools," he says, "and we'd always say 'Hi' to each other. Then we both wound up at Holy Cross in the same class. Moose played baseball in college, and he was a tremendous hitter." Hanlon, who co-captained the baseball team and played first base, even attracted the attention of major league scouts.

Cantwell also recalls the warm bonds of friendship. "Moose and I would get together to have lunch and just talk," he says. "We were close all four years."

Namesakes

Connie Young, the daughter of Mary Porciello, never met the uncle whose disappearance so devastated her mother's family. But the Bolton, Mass., resident named her first born son "John William" in honor of her uncle. "My mother always kept his picture on the bed stand," she says, "and I knew how much she loved him. She was thrilled when I named my son after her brother." Indeed, each of Moose Hanlon's sisters honored their war-hero brother by bestowing the name "John William" on a son.

But whatever happened to Bomber 31?

The families of Moose Hanlon and the six other crew members did not know what happened to their loved ones for over 50 years. After hope gave out, they were left with only an official "missing in action" label, poignant memories and deep fears.

"We had no idea what really happened," says Porciello. "We thought his plane had probably gone down to sea in icy water. Or he could have been a prisoner of war. Or he could have been tortured. These were not good feelings."

An Amazing Discovery

The stark words of an official Department of Defense Release recapped the story: "In January 2000, representatives of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs received a report from a Russian citizen who had discovered wreckage in 1962 of a U.S. aircraft on the Kamchatka peninsula on the east coast of Russia. Later that year, specialists from the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI), along with members of the commission, found the wreckage and some human remains."

The Associated Press carried the story in August, 2000, noting the grim tally of the five planes that set out on the Empire Express route that night: Only one plane completed its mission; two dropped their bombs into the sea before returning; one crashed right after takeoff; and the Ventura vanished.

The family of Moose Hanlon got the news in a rather circuitous way. A member of Hanlon's squadron sent the AP article to the "John Hanlon, Sr. Family" in Worcester. The letter was then forwarded on to a cousin who lived across the street. Eventually word found its way to Lourdes Johnson of Shrewsbury, Mass., now deceased, who was another of Moose's sisters.

"We couldn't believe it!" exclaims Prenier. "The news brought back so many memories …"

"The discovery brought closure," says Cantwell, about learning of the whereabouts of his long-lost college friend. "I had thought about Moose Hanlon a lot over the years."

"Fire and Ice"

An article that appeared in Retired Officer ("One Down in Kamchatka," by Ralph Wetterhahn) paints a vivid picture of the Ventura's half-century resting place: "Kamchatka is one of nature's contradictions. Fire and ice live side by side on a peninsula that is 920 miles long and only 390 miles across at its widest point. More than 300 volcanoes dot the landscape, 29 of them active, and most are snow-covered nearly year-round. … From the air it was nearly impossible to spot the remnants of the wreckage against a backdrop of rock slabs that had rolled down the sides of the now-dormant volcano … the fuselage pointed uphill. The engines were found together facing downhill about 75 yards below the rest of the plane."

Another account reports that the Ventura may have been hit by enemy fire after flying over the northern Kuril Islands, as one of the engines showed damage possibly caused by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. The plane may have been trying to reach Petropavlosk, Russia, where many planes landed after being hit by enemy fire.

What is known for sure is that no humans inhabit this desolate patch of the planet. But brown bears do, which may explain why so few human remains were found.

Searching for a DNA Match

Two of Moose's sisters gave DNA samples to determine a possible match with their brother. But no match was officially determined. In fact, only three of the seven crew members could be positively identified.

Porciello did receive from the Navy a 6-by-8-inch piece of leather flight jacket found in the wreckage and aviator goggles. They are believed to have belonged to her brother because the letters "j.g." are on the leather, and he was the only lieutenant j.g. in the crew.

A Fitting Tribute

The day dawned bright and beautiful on Nov. 20, 2003, the day that members of John Hanlon's family - along with the families of other crew members - buried the remains of their war heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. "The Navy pulled out all the stops," remembers Prenier.

The families were first taken to the chapel for a service. Then the caskets were placed on a caisson drawn by six horses - the same caisson that had borne John F. Kennedy 40 years earlier. The caisson was carried to the gravesite. There was a military salute. Taps was played. Then four planes flew overhead.

"They came so low the ground shook," remembers Prenier. "As they came over, the fourth plane went off. They call it the missing-man formation. I get goose bumps talking about it."

"I felt sad that Moose was there," says Cantwell of that day when his friend was honored.

The World on His Shoulders

"John." "Bill." "Moose." The name matters less than the message: John Whitman Hanlon Jr. was a true American hero. A revered older brother. A skilled team captain. An ace pilot. A friend who would always listen. A man who never trumpeted his own triumphs. Whatever his challenge, John Hanlon answered the call.

Today, family and friends find comfort in the fact that the mystery of his disappearance has been solved and that the man they loved and admired rests, at long last, in peace and honor.

 

David Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brunswick, Maine.

 

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