On a warm spring morning in 2008, a rumpled archaeologist named Eric Emery stood at the edge of a massive barge in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and glared down into the water.
All around him, the barge was a hive of activity. Two dozen young men scurried about the deck, preparing for the day's events. At one end, a small group huddled by a contraption made of two‑by‑fours, tugging at its joints and examining its design. At the other end, a long steel ramp descended to the water, with a speedboat parked at the bottom and a cluster of scuba divers on board. The rest of the barge was mostly filled with cargo-shipping containers, each one placed just far enough from the others to divide the deck into a series of hallways and rooms. One of the rooms was set up as a medical station, with an examination table in the middle and a stretcher propped against the wall. Another was arranged like a dive locker, with masks and fins and wetsuits hanging from a taut line. A third room functioned as a communications hub, with blinking machinery and streams of wire that converged on a small wooden desk, where a young man fiddled with the knobs of a yellow plastic box. The air all around was dank and heavy with morning rain and the sky was a gray camouflage of clouds and the tips of small islands peeked through a swarthy mist on the horizon, but standing at the edge of the barge Emery seemed oblivious to it all — the mist, the noise, the men, the islands — glaring down into the water as if daring it to a duel.
Even at a glance, it was obvious that Emery was unlike the other men on board. They were young and fit and clean-shaven, with tattoos of mermaids and dragons that snaked across long sinews of muscle. Emery was a dozen years older, stocky and grizzled, with deep lines etched around his eyes, his beard at least a week grown in, his hair an unruly explosion of wire, and his faded khaki T‑shirt matted to his chest by a combination of rain and sweat. He smiled little and spoke less. From time to time, one of the other men would pause for a moment to study him, as if noticing their leader for the first time. Later, when they thought back on Emery, they would marvel at how little they knew him, how little he said or gave away, even at the end.
Most of the men also knew little about one another. Many had never met before and would never meet again. They had been pulled together from all four corners of the fighting forces — soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines — with each man chosen for his individual talent. There were deep-sea divers trained by the Navy's experimental school in Florida to endure underwater pressure so extreme that the depths were considered secret. There were bomb defusers just back from Iraq with tired eyes and easy smiles and the latest operational intelligence on IED design. There were Air Force historians trained to identify, from the smallest fragment of metal or plastic, the make and model of any US aircraft built since 1941. There were forensic scientists who could do the same with bones, studying a single sliver or shard to determine where it belonged in a human body, and the age of the body to which it belonged, and sometimes even the gender or ethnicity. There was a physician on board who specialized in the mystical healing properties of superoxygenated fields. There were fishermen equipped with massive spears to haul parrot fish and unicorn fish from the depths and grill them over an open flame on deck. Together, they would spend six weeks on the barge, and then they would disperse again: to the desert, to the jungle, to the rain forests of New Guinea or the airless peaks of the Himalayas. But here, now, in the deep cerulean nowhere of the Pacific Ocean, on a tiny archipelago more than a thousand miles from the mainland, they had come together for a single purpose: to bring up what they found below.
Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from VANISHED: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II by Wil S. Hylton.