Unraveling a wartime mystery

Times Staff Writer

Most TV mysteries unfold with clockwork precision, laying out the case in the opening 15 minutes, playing it through for the next half hour, then wrapping things up to viewers' satisfaction in the final quarter-hour. But a true-to-life wartime mystery that has defied explanation for more than half a century proves a tougher nut to crack in today's edition of "Nova: Last Flight of Bomber 31" (8 p.m., KCET, KVCR).

Viewers conditioned to neat, upbeat resolutions might want to check those expectations at the door.

The case involves the March 24, 1944, disappearance of an American plane while on a bombing mission across the Bering Sea to Japan. After taking off in dense fog from the Aleutian island of Attu, the aircraft -- dangerously overloaded by more than 3,000 pounds with ordnance and extra fuel -- was not heard from again.

But when an envelope arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1999, containing half a dozen photos taken by a Russian historian of the wreckage of a World War II-era U.S. plane in eastern Siberia, Bomber 31 was back on the radar screen.

A team of investigators from the United States was allowed to inspect the site, and relatives of the seven-person crew on the aircraft that day nearly 60 years ago were located and informed of the wildly improbable development.

The son of one of the crew, who was just an infant when his father was listed as missing in action, decided to join the search team, hoping to bring back whatever remains might still exist so that his father could be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. And although many details of Bomber 31's last mission are unraveled, the resolution isn't quite what son Tom Rains was expecting: "It's not much to show for seven crew members' lives."

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