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The Searchers : WWII Bomber Lost in Jungle Is Seal Beach Woman's Grail

March 09, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

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.

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