Book Review: You Are Not Forgotten

Posting this week as a follow-up to last week's post. This is from my review published in the Journal, War, Literature, and the Arts (2016):

You Are Not Forgotten: The Story of a Lost WWII Pilot and a Twenty-First Century Soldier’s Mission to Bring Him Home. Brian Bender. New York: Doubleday, 2013, $26.95, hardcover, 317 pp.

Reviewed by Jeffrey C. Copeland, United States Air Force Academy

More than 83,000 American servicemen are still missing from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and various American engagements after 1973, and the search for the missing takes center stage in Brian Bender’s book, You Are Not Forgotten: The Story of a Lost WWII Pilot and a Twenty-First Century Soldier’s Mission to Bring Him Home. It is a particularly poignant book in light of the recent controversy surrounding the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (formerly the Joint Personnel Accounting Command, or JPAC), the military organization charged with finding and recovering America’s missing war dead.

You Are Not Forgotten is an engaging blend of past and present, told in a way in which the distinction often becomes one—Bender finds that the impulse to serve in America’s recent wars was not altogether different from its previous ones. It is a story of two military men who volunteered to fight for similar reasons—common refrains of patriotism, duty, family heritage, and commitment—yet in different wars situated in vastly different eras.

Marine Captain Ryan McCown was an F4U Corsair pilot shot down over the skies of present-day Papua New Guinea, as the United States began its island hopping campaign on the heels of victory in the Guadalcanal Campaign during World War II. Army Captain George Eyster is a Kiowa helicopter pilot and veteran of the Iraq war whose service in that country straddled some of the war’s toughest years. Both men were fiercely loyal to their mothers, and conversed with them routinely throughout their military careers. Both men’s fathers were either aloof, absent, or both, and there is also a hint of a boy still striving to prove something to their fathers in each. Both men’s units were inexperienced entering their respective wars, with attendant consequences to be borne. One could not wish for better subjects for a tale such as this.

Bender incorporates some clever subtleties into You Are Not Forgotten. The first is a nod to the future of archival research for historians—that is, Bender’s use of email and internet chat records from the Eyster family signal a new set of sources now becoming available to historians. Especially in light of recent court cases, in which big tech companies like Facebook and Yahoo have successfully fought to uphold their user agreements stipulating that users’ accounts will be terminated upon confirmation of one’s death rather than passing to the family as part of an estate, the seemingly trivial nature of online communication is countered in this book by becoming a critical component of understanding one of its protagonists impetus for finding the other.

In another clever subtlety, Bender offers a critique of the Iraq war by presenting two military men who volunteered to fight but who emerged from their respective conflicts with vastly different opinions of what they were fighting for. Naturally, Ryan, even after ditching his crippled Corsair in the Solomon Sea, nevertheless “insisted that he resume his place in the squadron and not lose a day’s flying time,” (170)  evincing an unbending support for a war almost universally considered “good.” He did return to flying shortly after the incident, but failing to return from a raid on a Japanese-held airfield, George is left to pick up Ryan’s story where it left off.

George’s experience with combat, meanwhile, left him disillusioned about the purpose of the war and his role in it as enemy attacks convinced him that his presence there would do nothing to change centuries of tribal and ethnic conflict aggravated by American involvement in their country. Desperate for a change, George lands the job with JPAC and ends his foundering, finally excited about his mission in the Army.

This book would benefit from some in-text maps of the South Pacific during World War II and of present-day Papua New Guinea. Even to a reader familiar with that region and theater of WWII, the place names have little significance without some visual aids to illuminate the text. Furthermore, as a C-130 pilot who had the privilege of moving JPAC personnel around Papua New Guinea on one of their expeditions, I was struck at times by Bender’s slip-ups regarding military life and the technicalities of flying.  For instance, Bender’s evidence of an Army commander’s “softer side” that rests on calling families of wounded or dead soldiers before they heard it anywhere else or praising his troops for showing restraint when civilians were nearby in Iraq is far from “soft” (135); rather, it is simply evidence of a good leader and commander. Also, one does not push rudder pedals “all the way forward to keep the plane under control” (230). However, Bender’s research was otherwise comprehensive enough to render these foibles quite minor.

The book really hits its stride in the second half, however, where Bender reaps the benefit of following George and his JPAC crews on an expedition in Papua New Guinea in the search for Ryan’s and others’ remains. Here Bender aptly strikes at the heart of the motto posted above JPAC’s headquarters in Hawaii: “A nation that forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten” (175). Indeed, JPAC’s mission to “bring them all home” transcends time and cultures in the book, as Bender notes that even native New Guineans working with JPAC crews on the digs felt a connection to returning elders to their native land. Furthermore, Bender brilliantly closes the loops for both Ryan and George: on a mission to Vietnam, George is taken to the place where his grandfather rather publicly died; meanwhile, George’s JPAC team finally finds evidence of Ryan’s remains and another of the 83,000 missing Americans returned home.

This is certainly an important book, especially in light of President Barack Obama’s “Pacific Pivot” and the recently increased attention, respect, and even critique Americans are giving our nation’s veterans. Bender’s engaging feature of the efforts to find and bring home the veterans of our past wars will resonate with any American, even those with no military connections.


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