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.
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
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
By David Treadwell
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
"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.
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.