The Lallathin crew, 1944.
Standing: SSgt. Richard Shepherd, 1Lt. Laverne A. Lallathin, 2Lt. Dwight D. Eckstam, Cpl. John D. Yeager
Kneeling: Cpl. Wayne R. Erickson, PFC John A. Donovan
An Eagle Scout. A collegiate swimmer. A straight-A student. An expert marksman. A pinochle-loving jokester. A budding navigator. A radio-repair wunderkind. The youngest was nineteen; the oldest, twenty-three. They came from Oklahoma, Washington, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Pennsylvania. They had an average of two year’s time in the Marine Corps. And they never fired a shot in anger before an accident took their lives. They were the crew of K-104, a PBJ-1D bomber of Marine Bombing Squadron 423 – the Seahorse Marines.
VMB-423 was formally commissioned at Cherry Point, North Carolina, on September 15, 1943. The pilots, many fresh from their qualification courses, learned to operate as a squadron instead of as individuals; navigators read maps and mastered bombsights, and gunners shot endless rounds on the firing ranges. Tragedy struck the young squadron in November when an accident claimed the lives of 2Lt. James P. McCullough’s crew during training at Edenton, North Carolina. The four Marines were the squadron’s first casualties; they would not be the last.
Training continued in El Centro, California, in January 1944. Somewhere in this bustle of activity, a young pilot named Laverne Artell Lallathin was placed in command of his own crew. Second Lieutenant Dwight D. Ekstam joined him in the cockpit as co-pilot; Technical Sergeant Richard Shepherd occupied the nose as a combination navigator and bombardier. For defense, the crew relied on Corporal Wayne Erickson’s top turret and Corporal John Yeager’s skill with the tail guns; PFC John Donovan manned the radio that kept them in contact with the base. The five Marines spent countless hours in their PBJ-1D bomber, and grew almost as close as family.
The “Seahorse Marines” of VMB-423 were anxious to get into the war; when the ground echelon of mechanics, metalsmiths, armorers, drivers, and clerks packed up to sail to Espiritu Santo in February, the flight crews knew the time was at hand. Later that month, the first of three groups lifted off from Fairfield, California, bound for Ewa Field in Honolulu. On their very first day out of the United States, the squadron lost its second aircraft when 1Lt. Henry Seeman’s bomber (#89) simply exploded in midair. Six days later, on March 6, the PBJ carrying Lallathin, Ekstam, Shepherd and Donovan touched down in Hawaii. The rest of the month was spent fitting the planes for the long voyage to the forward base at Espiritu Santo.
On April 5, Lieutenant Lallathin’s crew—now complete with gunners—began the long journey to Espiritu. Over the next several days, they island-hopped from Hawaii to Palmyra Island, and then to Funafuti, before arriving at their destination. The squadron’s war diary for April 9, 1944, reads in part: “Movement of squadron from El Centro, California, to Espiritu Santo, New Hebridies, finally completed.”
The Seahorse Marines were finally in the war—but their bad luck continued as they practiced night flying, medium altitude bombing, and aerial gunnery. On April 20, 1Lt. Alden Carlson’s plane failed to return from a night exercise; Carlson, 2Lt. Thaddeus Banachowski, SSgt. Clyde Yates, Cpl. John Gunn, Cpl. Raymond Marks, and Cpl. Reber Smith vanished without a trace, despite constant search flights. It was later determined that their PBJ-1D 35083 had crashed into the sea.
Transitioning from arid California to the tropical New Hebridies was difficult in more ways than one, and several Marines made the sick list. One sufferer was Staff Sergeant Dick Shepherd, who was battling a nasty cold. A thunderous rainstorm on April 22 added to his misery, as did the knowledge that he would be flying another hazardous training mission that night. As Shepherd resignedly prepared for takeoff, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was Technical Sergeant Walter Vincent, “Dub” to his family and “Vince” to the squadron, the navigator/bombardier for Lt. Lynn Griffitt’s crew. Vincent was short on flight time and wanted extra practice. “I really need some hours,” he confided to Shepherd. “Do you mind?” Shepherd, all too glad to stay in the relative comfort of the squadron tent, did not mind at all. Neither did Lieutenant Lallathin, who approved the substitution. He also welcomed aboard Technical Sergeant James A. Sisney, a radio maintenance expert.
Lallathin’s PBJ-1D, bearing the squadron call number K-104, taxied out onto the darkened runway in the midst of a tropical thunderstorm. Later, surviving Seahorse Marines said that all flights should have been grounded; the weather was abysmal. Several non-aviators were in the air that night, including Elvin Krumsee, a flight mechanic. “The weather was so bad that night that you couldn’t see the nose of our plane from the cockpit,” he later wrote. “The pilot told me that our squadron received our bearings from the Army Air Force that night. Well, wouldn’t you know, when we were supposed to be over Lugan Field, we were approximately fifty miles away. To this day, I don’t know how we got back alive. I still thank the man up in heaven, and the flight crew that I was flying with.”
The ground crews began to gather at the side of the runway, waiting for the bombers to return. With every plane that landed safely, a small knot of men visibly relaxed. Krumsee, still shaken from his experience, noticed one anxious group still scanning the skies—Lallathin’s maintenance men. Worried, Krumsee joined them; he had great personal respect for Lieutenant Lallathin. “The ground crews sat on the ground by the taxiway, nobody talking, straining our ears and praying that we would hear the sound of the engines of that PBJ. At about 0200, Lt. Col. Winston came out and told us to go back to our tents to get some sleep so that we could get the planes up early; to go out on search missions.”
Lallathin, Ekstam, Erickson, and Yeager were missing. So were their passengers, replacement navigator Vincent and technician Sisney. Several days of searches revealed no trace of the plane or the men. Their friends despaired.
“April 22 was one of the saddest days of my life. Lt. Lallathin’s crew failed to return from a night exercise. His Tail Gunner Sgt. John Yeager was not only a very close buddy, he was my pinochle partner. It would be difficult to estimate the hours we spent playing that silly game.” – Staff Sergeant Clifford Paul
“There have been three men that have left a lasting impression in my life. One was my father, the second was General Norman Anderson, and the third was First Lieutenant Laverne Lallathin. At one time, he said that if he ever got lost while flying, he was going to set the throttles back as lean as he could, sit back and sing the song: “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” I have often wondered if in fact this is what he did that night.” – Sergeant Elvin Krumslee
By May 11, the Seahorse Marine flyers were gone from Espiritu Santo; they had flown on to other bases, bringing the war to the Japanese. Dick Shepherd, who had given his place to “Dub” Vincent, became the navigator for Lt. Griffitt’s plane. The ground crews stayed behind temporarily, servicing the planes of VMB-413. Nobody expected to hear from the crew of K-104 again.
But hear they did.
“To Major Palmer from Lt. Pierce. Twin-engine plane located one and one half days Coast Watch Station 5 near Jordan River. Information no survivors. Equipment found as follows: 2 Smith and Wesson 38s serial 412534 and 396551. One “Very” pistol E-050343. Information from Mr. Robertson.
– Teletype received by MAG-11, 18 May 1944.
“Mr. Robinson” was W. T. Robinson, a coastwatcher stationed in northern Espiritu Santo. Local islanders had reported the crash site and delivered the pistols, which were traced to two of the officers of Bureau Number 35087 – Lallathin’s K-104.
A small party from MAG-11 headquarters was dispatched to investigate the claim. Major John Palmer, 2Lt. R. R. Wilson, and 2Lt. E. J. Caroselli took an amphibious plane to Robertson’s home on St. Phillip’s and St. James’ Bay; there they met their native guides, “Willie’s Son, Shadrach, Shoum-Shoum, Harry, Markwell, and Ghee-Ghee.” A difficult day’s trek brought the group to the interior of the island, where they encountered a “pygmy chief” who took over to guide the expedition. The going was torturous. “The gradient was so steep that it was not possible to put one’s foot forward when climbing,” complained Palmer.
The next section of the report illustrates just how remote and inaccessible the crash site was.
Heart pounding, shortness of breath… Rest, resume, but with some protest. This work calls for everything one has…. Falling and sliding backwards more often now. One member of the party stops where he has fallen, closes his eyes, no comment from anyone…. All natives except pygmy also tiring visibly now. Feel like resting about 12 steps after starting. Whole procedure depends on pulling oneself up by the arms… Don’t want to over do this, not too much strain on heart…. Discouragement, at seeming lack of progress; practical hopelessness of really getting anywhere…. Now know literal meaning of word exhaustion….
Wilson and Caroselli, two young and fit Marines, collapsed completely under the strain. Palmer was tempted to do likewise, but it would be “Bitterly disappointing to go back now. Failure of a mission… Robertson said I am held in higher respect by natives than any white man who had attempted jungle here. Maybe it’s only… a few minutes further on. Might as well do the utmost.”
The final stretch, made by Palmer and the little chieftain, was the worst of all.
Climb—slip—fall—miss vines—get lower vines—but they carry away—scuff leg—land—bruise backbone—don’t care—don’t swear. Try getting up that one again—toughest yet—don’t make it, but get angry now… Not going to try to puzzle things out anymore. Can’t make so much difference in any case. Unimportant. Nothing’s important. Kind of gray and fuzzy. Shake head violently. Pygmy turns to right. Follow him. He’s going down—can’t be. Route has only leveled off, completely…. Must be between 3000 and 4000 feet high…. Here we go down. Pygmy finally says it’s very near now. Discover presence of nerves while letting down near vertical banks. Burned branches of trees in sight. This is it.
Palmer beheld a “narrow but high rock wall with a ravine at the bottom.” Burned foliage and twisted metal were scattered all around, and it was plain to see what had happened to K-104. “The plane, freakishly enough, appears to have struck the exact center of this rock wall,” Palmer reported. “It must have been on a westerly course and just failed to clear the top of the mountain. It obviously exploded on impact, killing all personnel, and then burned. The largest piece of the plane which was left was one wing section which was torn off by impact with trees apparently and thrown to one side unburned. There was nothing left of the fuselage as such. The article of paramount interest… was a remote compass dial, the hand-set pointer on which was set at 255 degrees….”
Then came the hardest task.
The personnel of the plane were discovered under a carpeting of green and black blowflies. Near the top of the impact area the first remains were found, later further down and to the northward more were come across. Still more in two more places in the center and further down. It was impossible to definitely establish the number of persons who died there but there well could have been seven. No tags, teeth, or other means of identification were forthcoming… the largest section of human anatomy found was a spine with a few attached ribs…. Burial was given to the remains, and a cross was erected.
Having completed his mission, Major Palmer returned to camp and spent a further two days unsuccessfully searching for another plane (a Corsair piloted by 1lt. Aleiviades Pappas) before returning to headquarters and submitting his exhaustively detailed report. The report was filed away, and apparently forgotten; K-104 was officially declared “lost at sea,” the information filed on the crew’s Individual Deceased Personnel Files (“Cause of death: Drowning”) and reported to the bereaved families.
In 1987, author Dan Bookout was trekking through the backcountry of Vanatu, searching for a lost fighter plane. His guides—possibly descendants of the tribesmen who accompanied Major Palmer—led him to dozens of crash sites. Bookout jotted down locations and information as he explored. One day, he was shown the tail section of a wrecked PBJ bomber. It was number 35087. Still questing for his fighter pilot, Bookout wrote down the number and continued with his search. In 2006, he posted a message in an online forum, seeking relatives of Laverne Lallathin. The family replied. And the thread was reconnected.
Another twenty years would pass before the first family member—Craig Anderson, married to “Dub” Vincent’s niece—visited the crash site on Mount Tabwemasana. “I looked down and I was standing on one of the wings. It was incredible. Euphoric. I couldn’t believe we were there,” he said. Hope was rekindled. With Bookout’s information, and DNA samples collected from family members by VMB-423 veteran Ned Wernick, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command mounted three expeditions between 2009 and 2011, collecting physical remains and performing exhaustive tests. By the end of the third trip, they had recovered remains from each of the seven missing men.
In 2012, the Seahorse Marines of K-104: Laverne Lallathin, Dwight Ekstam, “Dub” Vincent, Wayne Erickson, John Yeager, John Donovan, and James Sisney were buried with full military honors. Mellissa Christensen, whose “Uncle Laverne” now rests in Arlington National Cemetery, summed up the feelings of those in attendance.
“When I saw his casket, I remembered how much my grandparents wanted him to show up at the door. And I realized, ‘that’s him. He’s home.'”
First Lieutenant Laverne Artell Lallathin
March 11, 1922 – April 22, 1944
A trombone-playing child prodigy who earned his Eagle Scout at fourteen, graduated from Ada High School at fifteen, and completed his first year at East Central State College in Ada, Oklahoma by sixteen, “Lally” was “a good example of what a clean and high souled youth can and ought to be.” He enlisted in the United States Army in 1940 at the age of eighteen and went through initial training as an artilleryman before resigning to become a naval aviator. At 21, he was young for a pilot, but quickly earned the trust of his squadron mates.
SEPTEMBER 4,1943 I was discharged from the hospital [for appendicitis] and assigned to the pilots’ Ready Room, for light duty, having to report to 2nd Lieutenant Laverne A. Lallathin. My job was to make coffee, make sure the refrigerated chest was kept full of carbonated soda and see to it that the place was kept clean of any litter. One day, Lt. Lallathin saw me carrying a case of soda. He stopped me and told me to put it down. He then reminded me that I was on light duty and that if anything heavy had to be picked up or moved, I should get one of these guys sitting around (referring to the pilots.) He also told me that they weren’t any better than me. That was the beginning of our close relationship. He was called Lally by all of the officers that knew him. He told me that whenever we were alone, he wanted me to call him Lally, not Lieutenant, and he called me El, short for Elvin. Lally had a close friend, 2nd Lieutenant Jasper A. Bates. It was amusing when each of them bet that they could quit smoking. They gave me the bet money to hold. It was quite a coincidence that both of them smoked Phillip Morris cigarettes as I did, and Lally smoked the same kind of pipe tobacco that I did. Well, what do you think the two of them were doing? That’s right, they were bumming cigarettes from me, and Lally was bumming the pipe tobacco as well. That went on for almost two weeks when somehow they caught on to each other. Then they both told me to keep the bet money to pay for the cigarettes and pipe tobacco of mine they had smoked.
– Sergeant Elvin Krumsee, VMB-423
So well-liked was Lallathin that on the night his plane disappeared, his ground crew and friends sat vigil by the runway. Krumsee: “He’s the kind of guy … … well, that night, when they didn’t come back, the ground crew sat out there around the taxiway. No one’s talking, everybody’s straining their ears, hoping and praying to hear the sound of those engines. Finally, about one o’clock in the morning, the commanding officer, Colonel Winston, told us to go back, go to bed, get those planes out in the morning, and we’ll go search for them. But here is an officer, can you imagine? …it wasn’t guys that were flight crews – they were ground crew! They liked him so much, they were just hoping and praying he’d come back. He was the Number One – one of best men I ever knew.”
Articles about Lieutenant Lallathin
After 68 years, Uncle Laverne comes home
Remains of Marine who disappeared in 1944 return to U.S.
Second Lieutenant Dwight Dale Ekstam
December 14, 1922 – April 22, 1944
Dwight Ekstam was born and raised in Illinois; he was a track star and notable swimmer at Moline High School when he graduated (a year ahead) in 1940. Ekstam attended Augustana College for two years before joining the Navy as an ensign. He qualified as a naval aviator at Corpus Christi, but was destined to wear the forest green Marine uniform. He flew side by side with “Lally” Lallathin as co-pilot.
Ekstam’s younger brother, Dean Ekstam, was among the first to make serious attempts to locate the crash site, even making two trips to Vanatu. He died in 2007, knowing the wreck was accessible, but before witnessing the return of his brother’s remains. The Ekstam family became involved in the recovery of the crew; Dean’s DNA sample was used to confirm Dwight Ekstam’s remains.
Dale Ekstam is memorialized with the crew at Arlington National Cemetery, and individually at Rock Island National Cemetery.
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This is a remarkable story with many chapters . . .
Ekstam “Family Reunion”
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Second Lieutenant Walter Bert “Dub” Vincent, Jr.
December 11, 1922 – April 22, 1944
Known as “Dub” (short for “W” as his siblings had trouble with “Walter”). The Vincent family moved to Tulsa when Dub was nine; he attended Central and then Will Rogers High School, where he played basketball and was a member of the new school’s first graduating class. He was enrolled at the University of Tulsa when the war began, and dropped out to enlist in the Marines on December 3, 1942. Dub was trained on the west coast, at MCRD San Diego for boot camp and at Camp Kearney, California where he showed a flair for navigation. Promoted up to Staff Sergeant in the fall of 1943,Vincent was sent to MCAS Ewa on October 17, and probably joined up with VMB-423 shortly before their departure for Espiritu Santo. (This may account for his lack of flight hours, and why he volunteered to fly for Dick Shepherd.) Dub received a posthumous promotion to Second Lieutenant.
I’ve always been curious as to why our crew picture (Lt. Griffitts) as shown in the original hard cover squadron book, reveals only five (5) crew members – no bombardier/navigator. To make things even a little more blurry, I couldn’t remember who our bombardier/navigator had been or why he wasn’t in the picture.
Through Griffitts and [co-pilot] Powers I learned that our bombardier/navigator was Tech. Sgt. Dick Shepherd. After numerous conversations with Dick Shepherd about how and when he became Griffitts’ bombardier/navigator and then getting that special announcement that… K-104, with 1st Lt. Lallathin’s and his crew – that crashed into a mountain on April 22, 1944 in Espiritu Santo – had been found on July 30, 1997, Shepherd and I theorized that originally Shepherd was Lallathin’s bombardier/navigator and Tech. Sgt. Walter Vincent was Griffitts’ bombardier/navigator.
Shepherd vaguely remembers that on that fateful night of Lallathin’s accident, he (Shepherd) couldn’t fly for some reason – had a cold or was sick or something – so Vincent took Shepherd’s place on that particular training exercise. As we all know, Vincent was lost along with the rest of Lallasthin’s crew.
Lallathin’s crew picture, in our original squadron book, does show Dick Shepherd as his bombardier /navigator.
You know, after all these years, I can’t remember Vincent. As far as that goes, I didn’t remember much about Dick Shepherd until I made contact through Ned Wernick and our squadron. I guess that bomb bay separated the gunners and radiomen from the guys up front more than we realized.
It’s kinda eerie and ironic that Dick Shepherd could have been the one lying on that mountain in the New Hebrides and I could be talking to Walter Vincent on the phone. It’s all too easy, sometimes, to forget just how plain lucky we have been.
– Fred Stay, tail gunner, VMB-423
Just before going overseas, Vincent paid a call to a Tulsa office, asking to see Georgia Kendall. She was his older brother’s new girlfriend, and Walter wanted to check her out. “I gotta see the girl my brother keeps talking about,” he joked. Georgia never saw Dub again after the brief meeting; she eventually married Earnest Vincent and had a daughter, Kim. Kim and her husband, Craig Anderson, traveled to Vanatu personally to visit the crash site; their trip with Dan Bookout proved that the site was accessible enough for a recovery expedition. (For a detailed description and documentary of that voyage, please see Coming Home). When Dub Vincent was buried in cemetery, Georgia was the sole attendee who had met him in person.
Articles about Lieutenant Vincent
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Technical Sergeant James Austin Sisney
February 3, 1925 – April 22, 1944
The son of a Veteran’s Hospital painter, James Sisney born in Livermore, California and raised in San Mateo County. The “tall, quiet redhead” attended Sequoia High School, where according to a classmate he was a model student. “Not in any trouble,” said Marguerite Richardson. “Just did his work.” Sisney enlisted on December 2, 1942, immediately after graduation; he was only seventeen years old. Evidently gifted with radios, he held the advanced rank of technical sergeant when he joined VMSB-423 at the age of nineteen.
Sisney was a radio technician, not part of a regular flight crew. His presence aboard K-104 has not yet been explained. The regular radio operator, John Donovan, may have been having difficulties with his equipment, or perhaps Sisney needed the extra flight time. The normal complement of a PBJ1-D was six men, and Sisney made seven who never returned.
James Sisney is memorialized at Golden Gate National Cemetery, and with his crew in Arlington National Cemetery.
Articles about TSgt. Sisney
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Photograph slideshow of the James Sisney funeral
Corporal John Albert Donovan
November 11, 1923 – April 22, 1944
John Albert Donovan – “Bert” – was a Michigan native, one of six Donovan children raised in Plymouth. “My mother always said the same thing,” said his youngest sister Josephine Demianenko. “He was very smart. He was an A student. Real smart, but real nice. He was nice to everyone.” After enlisting on December 11, 1942, Donovan was sent to boot camp in San Diego, radio and gunnery school at Jacksonville, Florida, and joined VMB-423 at Cherry Point, North Carolina. He rose in rank to corporal by the time he deployed overseas. On April 22, 1944, he shared his cramped compartment with James Sisney; the two probably talked shop in between relaying messages. As previously mentioned, Sisney’s presence might have indicated that K-104’s set was not functioning properly, as few communications (and no distress calls) were received from the aircraft before it crashed.
Young Josephine answered the door when the Western Union telegram arrived. “I gave it to my sister and she gave it to my mother when my mother came home. She was at a church meeting. She was very shocked. It was shocking,” she said. In June, 2012, she saw her brother buried in Old St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Articles about Corporal Donovan
Arlington funeral for Michigan Marine, 6 others
World War II Marine remains finally “at home”
Corporal Wayne Richard Erickson
May 24, 1924 – April 22, 1944
Wayne Erickson was a Minnesota native; he joined the Marine Corps on November 17, 1942 at the age of seventeen. As the top turret gunner for K-104, he served double duty as the flight engineer. Few other details about his life are available; he was buried in Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, with an elaborate presentation from the local color guard.
Articles about Corporal Erickson
Remains of MN Marine found 68 years after plane disappeared
The color guard at Erickson’s funeral
Video of Erickson’s burial service
Corporal John Daniel Yeager
May 20, 1920 – April 22, 1944
John Yeager, known as “Jack” to his family and friends, was the oldest member of K-104’s crew – when he deployed overseas, he was all of 23 years old. Born in 1920 to Daniel and Anna Mae Yeager, Jack was raised in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, and doted on by his two older sisters, Marion and Rosalia. He attended Martin School, New Kensington High, and a few classes at the University of Pennsylvania before finding work at the ALCOA branch in New Kensington. His good humor and good looks attracted the attention of Miss Helen King; the two were married in 1941 and made their residence in Aluminum City Terrace – Jack’s work was now classed as vital to the defense industry.
Jack wanted to be a Marine, and enlisted on October 10, 1942. After completing boot camp, he wanted to become an aviator, and went through training at the Naval Air Gunner’s School in Hollywood, California. Many Marines wrote home complaining about the quality of food they received, but Yeager had no such complaint; in fact, he had the opposite problem. “When he graduated from tail gunner’s school, he weighed 160 pounds,” said his niece Marlyn Claassen. “He said the Marines fed him too good. When he gained 10 pounds, he no longer fit in the B-25 fuselage. He had to lose that extra weight very fast.” Yeager duly dieted, and saved the goodies for his young relatives. “He was so generous,” recalled nephew Bernard Smith. “When he came home on leave from the service, he’d say to me, ‘I’d brought you something, and it’s down by the mailbox.’ There would be ice cream or candy.”
Corporal Yeager joined VMB-423 at Cherry Point and joined Lieutenant Lallathin’s crew as the tail gunner and crew ordinance expert. On the ground, he earned a reputation as a pinochle player. “It would be difficult to estimate the hours we spent playing that silly game,” remembered squadronmate Clifford Paul. A prolific letter writer, Jack Yeager always reassured his family with the line “Don’t worry about me.”
Jack Yeager was wearing an identity bracelet and his engraved wedding ring when he died. Both items were recovered along with his remains, and were returned to his family in 2012. Today, Jack Yeager is buried in Saint Mary’s Cemetery, Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania.
Articles about Corporal Yeager
Marine’s remains coming home 68 years later
Long missing WWII Marine laid to rest
For further reading on the Seahorse Marines:
VMB-423 Squadron Page
VMB-423 Veteran Memoirs
Major Palmer’s Report
“Coming Home” – Recovery efforts, 2007 – 2012
“Until They Are Home” – Article on JPAC mission, focusing on K-104
“Search for the Lost Blacksheep” – by Dan Bookout, detailing the search for downed aircraft on Vanatu
 Elvin Krumsee, “A Chronicle Of My Service In The U.S. Marine Corps.”
 This quote and all following information from “Crash of PBJ 35087, trip to the site of” by Major John Palmer, USMCR, 4 June 1944. The entire transcript of the report is available here.