It was a simple bit of curiosity, a matter-of-fact question about a man’s not-so-distant roots: How and where, 27-year-old Thomas Hall asked his mother in August, 1983, did his great uncle meet his death in World War II?
Five months later, they were fighting off dehydration in the Papua New Guinea jungle trying to find out.
Thomas Hall’s offhand bit of familial curiosity touched off an extraordinary journey of the heart, a sprawling, snowballing paper chase that ultimately led the two Halls to the edge of a steaming lagoon half a world away to search for the last traces of a relative he never knew.
“It sort of got to be like (Sir Edmund) Hilary and Everest,” said his mother, Patti Domville Hall, 57, a writer and former paralegal who lives in Seal Beach.
“We did it because it was there. After my son asked me what happened to my uncle, I realized that no one had ever known anything about what happened to him. I thought it might be time to find out. It seems strange, but it just seemed like the right time to do it.”
Hall remembers her uncle--her mother’s brother--fondly from her childhood years when he, Hall and several other relatives lived in the same house. She called him her “role-model male. He taught me to ice-skate, fly a kite, and so on, but his finest lessons involved not giving in to fear--the pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off school of thinking.”
Nearly 47 years ago, during World War II in the Pacific, Lt. Thomas C. Domville, the co-pilot of a B-26 bomber, was killed along with the six other members of his plane’s crew when the bomber was shot down by a Japanese shore battery over a New Guinea lagoon. The crew was declared to have been killed in action, but no trace of them has ever been found, and no one has been able to locate the crash.
Hall still doesn’t know. She returned from her fifth trip to Papua New Guinea Sunday with little more information about the whereabouts of her uncle’s remains than when she began her quest. The most immediate evidence of her latest venture into obscure history was a bad case of jet lag.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Through minute examinations of military records, as well as face-to-face contacts with natives of Papua New Guinea and cooperation from former Japanese occupiers, Hall said she has found the lagoon in which her uncle’s B-26 crashed. She believes the plane then sank to the bottom, to be covered over the years with shifting sands.
During late February and early March, Hall made what she called “the toughest of all the trips I’ve made yet (to New Guinea) in terms of my physical condition. I came down with a bug of some kind almost as soon as I got there, and the boat trip was the roughest yet. It was about 60 to 70 miles by boat (to the lagoon), and it was open sea about half the way. You know when the locals on board get sick, it’s a pretty rough trip.”
The latest trip took 17 days, 8 of which were spent living on the small boat and taking frequent readings off a device called a magnetometer, which is used to find iron-bearing substances under the water.
“We did an enormous amount on a daily basis,” Hall said, “doing magnetometer surveys and gridding the lagoon. We covered a goodly area, but there’s still more to be done.”
What the expedition found were what Hall called “ferrous anomalies” under the bottom sand: iron-bearing volcanic rock that was “probably the very basis for these islands.”
But no plane, no wreckage, no bones, no identification tags. No trace of the bomber or its crew.
Hall, however, remains encouraged. Six years ago, the plane’s wreckage seemed as inaccessible as the moon. Now, she said, “we know it’s there,” somewhere in or under a lagoon of about 12 square miles.
It took the better part of 5 years, Hall said, plus an ocean of paper work, to shrink the search to a target that small.
The paper chase began with a letter inquiring about the crash, which Hall sent to the Army adjutant general’s office in 1983. After about 3 months, the letter was shunted onto the desk of the Army’s acting chief of the Department of Memorial Affairs. That department in turn referred her to the reunion association of the Army Air Corps bomb group that had included her uncle’s plane and crew.
Members of that group told Hall about Bruce Hoy, then curator of the war branch of the National Museum of Papua New Guinea.
“He is without a doubt the most knowledgeable man anywhere in matters to do with the 5th Air Force in the southwest Pacific area during World War II,” Hall said. “He has an incredible computerized mind.”
Still, she said, through the mail Hoy “could not be very encouraging. He could indicate the possible target the plane was headed for, but there was an awful lot of open water involved.”
Hall and her son, then 27, decided to fly to Papua New Guinea to meet Hoy in January, 1984, but “our initial meeting with him was not much more encouraging,” she said.
The morning after that first meeting, however, Hoy told them that he had found a narrative written by a U.S. pilot who had flown in the area during the war, dated July, 1942, which referred to a downed bomber sinking in a lagoon. The plane had crashed May 10, 1942.
“My son and I reached the conclusion,” Hall said, “that we should go (to the lagoon) and see for ourselves. We’d never been camping before, but we went out and bought a lot of camping gear, and Bruce (Hoy) loaned us a giant machete.”
After a commercial flight to the southwest tip of Papua New Guinea, the Halls boarded a charter flight for the interior, then chartered a reconnaissance flight over the general area described in the pilot narrative found by Hoy.
“During the flight,” Hall said, “both my son and I spotted what we thought was a very large wheel in one lagoon.”
They were dropped off at an airstrip about 60 miles away from the lagoon, then prepared to take a dugout canoe to the lagoon.
The canoe, Hall said, “leaked like crazy. We were bailing constantly” during the 24-hour ride to the lagoon.
Once near the lagoon, “we were stashed in what had once been a splendid plantation house,” she said. “But it was the high point of their summer, and our problem was that because there was a drought, we couldn’t get enough liquid into us fast enough to offset dehydration. It reached a serious stage after about 3 or 4 days. We opened a can of peaches at one point and drank the juice from that. We boiled water from the sump at the back of the house and made tea. We were drinking tea as fast as we could get it in us.”
A meeting between the Halls and villagers who lived near the lagoon was arranged. Patti Hall questioned the older natives through an interpreter, looking for firsthand accounts of the crash of a U.S. bomber.
“The story of the crash of our plane was contained in local lore,” she said. “One village elder told us what happened that day, complete with arm-waving indicating that a wing had come off.”
The wheel they thought they had spotted from the air turned out to be a coral structure, Hall said, “but it didn’t matter. We knew we were in the right place.”
The next 5 years were spent sifting through a mountain of documentation, “trying to support the fact that the plane mentioned by the locals was ours,” Hall said. “We had to find records for all planes, Japanese and American, that could have been in the area for a period of, say, a week or more.”
(Thomas Hall, a lawyer who lives in Colorado, accompanied his mother on the first trip only. However, she said, he has continued to help with research at home.)
She wrote letters to veteran associations, ran queries in military association magazines, interviewed former Japanese and U.S. soldiers and fliers, often gleaning information through “an enormous element of what people call luck,” Hall said.
Through a slow process of elimination, she said, she became convinced that the bomber mentioned by the Papuan natives “could not have been anyone else’s plane.”
Three more trips were made in the next 3 years, but weather often curtailed exploration, she said. Also, sophisticated survey equipment was not available until the latest trip. Divers searching the lagoon on the third trip found no trace of wreckage.
She decided to explore the possibility that the plane had been buried under bottom sand.
Hall said her quest has generated unusual interest in the offices of the Army’s Central Identification Lab in Hawaii, which is responsible for the identification and retrieval of remains of military personnel when they are discovered. Two representatives of the lab, convinced that Hall was closing in on the wreck, accompanied her on her third trip.
“They told me at one point that no next of kin had ever gone to this extreme” to find a relative’s remains, she said.
For nearly 5 years, “some portion of every day and often full days” have been consumed by Hall’s research and letter writing. “I haven’t been doing anything else,” she said. “Our house is full of paper. It becomes such a personal commitment that money is not a consideration. In its own way, it’s a financial hardship. But compared to the sacrifices of those seven men, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
Hall’s husband--who is also named Thomas--has been consistently supportive, Hall said, although he has not made any of the trips. He has stayed home and continued his job as a sales representative for a sporting goods company.
“He’s told me, ‘It’s not a matter of should you go; you must go,’ ” Hall said.
The search, she said, has actually begun to take on a momentum of its own: “You reach a certain point in resurrecting the truth. . . . You get to a point of no return. Half the truth is no good to anyone. Right now, we’re going to regroup. We’ll go back, sure, but I don’t know when or how. Having tried is really the crux of it.”
In a letter before she left on her most recent trip to Papua New Guinea, Hall wrote, “I return to a question asked many times: Why carry a search to such obvious extremes? Some answer lies in this: that our original hopes to find signs of the crew have led not only to our ‘resurrecting’ my uncle in memory and (obtaining) new information about the war, but that we now understand somewhat better what his friends saw, felt and experienced.
“What the 2nd Squadron, 22nd Bomb Group did, along with their fellow air units and hundreds of other participants in the sad old war, stands as utterly remarkable. Honor is the point.”