Palau is a small island nation located in the western Pacific Ocean. Officially the Republic of Palau, the country's 21,000 residents live on 250 islands that are a part of the island chain of Micronesia.
While it is famous for scuba diving and snorkeling, a major part of Palau's history is overlooked — it was the third largest spot for American casualties in World War Two.
Approximately 2,000 Americans lost their lives in and around the Republic of Palau, second only to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Several of these missing Americans were never repatriated, or brought back to the United States and given proper honors.
Derek Abbey — the assistant military liaison officer in San Diego State University's Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center and a retired Marine Major — is making it his mission to repatriate each American believed to have gone missing in Palau. He joined the BentProp Project, a group dedicated to locating and assisting with identifying American prisoners of war and those who went missing in action in the Western Pacific during WWII.
"This project is so important because it completes the promise we make to the American serviceman — that if they are lost or fall during war, that we will bring them home," Abbey said. "It's been seven decades since WWII but the weight the families of veterans who go missing in action is passed on from generation to generation."
The BentProp Project
Two decades ago, Patrick Scannon, a former Major in the Army Medical Corps, visited Palau on vacation. While touring around the island, his tour group came across a well-preserved wing from an American bomber plane. His tour guide had little to no information about its origin.
With his interest piqued, Scannon discovered that many Americans had been lost in Palau, and he resolved to bring them home, so to speak.
Besides repatriation, the BentProp Project is also committed to educating Americans on the importance of service to one’s country and to provide educational opportunities to students in the arenas of science, history, leadership and diplomacy.
All participants in the project are volunteers dedicated to providing closure to the families whose loved ones never returned home from war.
The project has repatriated eight Americans since the beginning of the mission, and has identified dozens of locations where more Americans could potentially be found. Members of the mission have also located around 35 American aircrafts and 35 Japanese aircrafts in the Pacific Ocean.
From homeland to the jungle
The BentProp Project is unique in that its research takes many forms. The team interviews family members of missing Americans, visits war museums, painstakingly studies national archives and examines sites that are associated with veterans who went missing in action or became prisoners of war. And all this is done before the team gets to Palau.
Abbey — who has been involved with the project for a decade and has been to Palau seven times — said the project works in conjunction with a team of individuals ranging from members of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to a high school in Michigan that builds robots for the mission.
“You’d be surprised — We’ve been doing a lot of research over the last two decades, and yet we still continue to find new material that guides our searches,” Abbey said.
Once the team touches down in Palau, they spend about a month on a mission, diving into the depths of the ocean and searching through the jungle. They also spend time working with Palau citizens and government officials to gain access to parts of the country. "They are committed allies in our search," Abbey said.
So what does success look like?
"Success isn't about finding aircrafts or machinery — for us, it's about locating these Americans lost in WWII and giving them the honor and recognition they deserve," Abbey said.
Abbey believes that getting students involved in the project is an integral aspect of the mission.
With the help from a President's Leadership Fund grant, Abbey will take undergraduate SDSU students majoring in social sciences, including political science and sociology, to Palau.
"I'm excited to bring students into the project because they'll get to see real-world applications of what they learn in the classroom," Abbey said.
On the horizon
Although Abbey and his team have made great strides in the past decade, he hopes to continue moving forward.
"We've made a ton of progress through our missions, which is great to propel the momentum forward," Abbey said.
The initiative has gained an abundance of attention — Both 60 Minutes and GoPro recently featured the BentProp Project.
Success has been satisfying to Abbey, but his focus is fixed on the work that remains to be done.
"It's our way of saying thank you to the families and the veterans who have served," Abbey said.