No Man Left Behind – Times Publications, July 2010
Five decades after Lt. William Weber went missing in action during WWII, Ken Moore uncovered his uncle’s true fate. Now he’s on a mission to bring each and every fallen American solider home.
By Shanna Hogan
It was November, 20, 1943, two years into WWII, and the U.S. had just begun its campaign across the Central Pacific toward Japan.
Just before dawn, a U.S. fleet of warships advanced on Tarawa Atoll, a string of coral islets located about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
The American force was the largest yet assembled for a single operation. Dozens of battleships, cruisers and destroyers carried the Second Marine Division and part of the 37th Infantry Division, a total of about 35,000 soldiers. Their mission: to seize the Tarawa Atoll and secure a gateway for the Americans through the Central Pacific.
It was expected to be an easy victory. It would turn out to be one of the bloodiest battles in American history.
On the largest three-mile islet, 4,700 heavily armed Japanese troops were entrenched in fortified concrete bunkers. Massive artillery pieces on rotating turrets lined the beaches.
As the U.S. assault ships made their way toward the beach, they were forced into an abrupt halt. The Marines had made the deadly mistake of making their approach during low tide and were caught up on the coral reefs, about 500 yards from shore.
Wading through waist-deep water over piercing, razor-sharp coral, hundreds of soldiers were cut down by merciless enemy gunfire. Those who made it ashore huddled in the sand, flanked by the sea on one side and the Japanese on the other.
For two days the fierce battle continued on land and from the water. When it was over, the beach was littered with the bodies of U.S. and Japanese soldiers. Only 17 enemy fighters survived. The U.S. was victorious, but had taken a heavy hit.
“It was an incredible massacre—one of the largest losses of lives in American history in a single day,” says Ken Moore, a Scottsdale resident and founder of M.I.A Charities Inc., a M.I.A. recovery organization. “I call Tarawa the tip of the iceberg. It is a prime example of how those who died in combat fighting for our freedoms have been neglected. No war, no time, no battle was as gross and destructive as the Battle of Tarawa.”
Nearly 1,200 American soldiers lost their lives during the three-day battle. The remains of 522 of them are still buried under the garbage-strewn sands in mass graves.
Today, 67 years after the Battle of Tarawa, Ken Moore and his group of volunteer M.I.A.-recovery specialists are on a mission to finally bring the remains of the fallen soldiers home.
Finding Uncle Billy
Ken Moore’s mission on Tarawa actually began long after WWII had ended.
It was 1970 and Moore, 23 at the time, was only concerned about the whereabouts of one M.I.A.— Lt. William “Billy” Weber, the uncle he had never met.
Moore had grown up hearing stories about his uncle. He knew he was a high-school state-champion basketball player and a gifted woodworker known as a kind and decent man. During WWII, Billy had gone off to war and never came home. Moore’s mother, Pauline, knew nothing about what had happened to her youngest brother except that he was listed as “missing in action.”
Some of the family thought he had been a tank commander, while others insisted he had died as a foot solider. Due to a lack of information provided by the military, no one knew for sure.
As a first-year graduate student at Georgetown University, Moore was working on a master’s degree in political economics. His mother was about to celebrate her 65th birthday, and he decided to use his education as a researcher to provide her with a documented history of what had happened to her brother.
Skipping class, he hitchhiked from his rented condo in Virginia to Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base, where he spent the next three days poring over documents. He had no idea at the time that he was about to unlock a 30-year mystery.
While thumbing through the papers, Moore discovered a missing air crew report dated March 25, 1945, for a B-29 aircraft nicknamed “The Life of Riley.” The pilot: Lt. William Weber.
“All of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, my God! I found the missing air crew report for ‘The Life of Riley’. There’s my uncle!’” Moore recalls. “He wasn’t a foot solider in Italy. He wasn’t driving a tank. He was a hot shot bomber pilot flying the B-29 out of Tinian. Nobody knew that.”
At the time of his disappearance, Billy had been stationed on Tinian, a tiny tropical island in the Pacific, according to the report. On March 24, 1945, Billy took off in “The Life of Riley” and never returned to base. No one in the Pacific saw the plane go down, and no one found any evidence of a crash. Between 1945 and 1949, the military conducted five official searches for the missing aircraft and its crew. All came up empty.
The report was invaluable. For the first time, Moore’s family knew what had happened to Billy. But for Moore, there were still many unanswered questions. He later found a second report, tucked inside a booklet of official Air Force documents. The reports varied widely as to the number of crew listed aboard “The Life of Riley.”
More than ever, he was determined to find out what actually happened on Billy’s last flight.
For the next three decades, Moore would dedicate nearly every waking hour, and spend close to a million dollars, in an attempt to uncover the facts behind the death of his uncle.
The Life of Riley
By 1990, between getting married, having children and beginning an investment-banking career, Ken Moore had compiled an impressive collection of data on World War II, particularly surrounding the events that had unfolded in and around Tinian Island.
After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, he was able to determine that there had been radio contact with “The Life of Riley” on the evening of March 24, 1945. In part, the crew reported an “engine on fire.”
At the time of the report, the craft was an estimated 28 miles southeast of Guguan Island, which is located within a string of islands 1,600 miles off the coast of Japan.
Moore kept digging. After tracking down information from his uncle’s widow, members of the military and islanders who had lived near the area during World War II, Moore was able to pinpoint nearly 300 potential crash sites.
Over time a picture began to emerge of what had happened to “The Life of Riley.”
On March 24, 1945, the aircraft and its nine-member crew departed on a top-secret solo flight. Their destination: Pagan Island to drop more than 20,000 pounds of bombs on an isolated Imperial Japanese stronghold.
Moore theorized that they completed their top-secret mission, but in the process were hit by enemy fire. As the plane headed back to Tinian, the crew radioed in a mayday call reporting an engine on fire.
Still 184 miles away from the base, the decision was made for “The Life of Riley” to double back to attempt a landing on or near Alamagan Island, a lush tropical paradise just 32 miles from Pagan Island. Moore was able to narrow the crash site to the island’s lagoon, an ideal place to ditch a plane with such an expansive wingspan.
To explore his theory, in 1998 Moore took his first trip to the Pacific. For four months, he and two friends hiked through the mountains and jungles of Tinian and surrounding islands.
A year later, he returned for the second time, with the intent of exploring Alamagan’s lagoon. Hiring a group of professional divers, boatsmen and adventurers, Moore assembled a team of 10 men to search for the plane.
On April 29, 1999, Moore’s team finally dropped anchor just outside the lagoon. About 300 yards off the Alamagan Island, they made an amazing discovery. Submerged under 70 feet of water was a B-29—“The Life of Riley.” There were no bodies onboard.
It was then that Moore finally learned what had happened to his uncle. Billy and the crew hadn’t perished in the crash as the military had concluded. Instead, the crew had ditched the plane and likely survived.
Years later, Moore learned through Russian documents that not only had his uncle Billy survived, but that he likely hadn’t died until 1991, after serving about 45 years as a prisoner in a Soviet labor camp. For Moore, it was unfathomable that the military’s efforts to recover the crew had failed.
As the significance of this discovery sunk in, Moore began to consider the thousands of other M.I.A. soldiers who had never been found and whose families were never able to get any sense of closure.
“When a son or daughter goes missing in action the families have to live their entire lives questioning, ‘How does this piece together?’” Moore says. “To this day, the military still does this. They declare a person dead, and the families are left with this vacancy.”
There are approximately 92,000 military personnel who went missing in action from wars throughout the 20th century. Those men and women may have been killed, wounded, become a prisoner of war or deserted. If deceased, neither their remains nor grave can be positively identified.
In WWII alone, there are approximately 78,000 soldiers listed as missing in action. The U.S. maintains that approximately 35,000 of them are still recoverable.
A task force within the United States Department of Defense known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is in charge of recovering and accounting for missing military personnel. However, it’s a huge job and of the thousands missing, they recover and identify less than 100 each year.
“The government can’t do everything,” says Dr. Karen Burns, a forensic anthropologist and university professor who volunteers with Moore’s Marauders. “And sometimes, even when the government is trying to do everything, families don’t know how to get access to what they are doing. So independent researchers, independent scientists are extremely useful.”
After learning of his uncle’s fate, Ken Moore expanded his efforts to help recover other missing soldiers, particularly from WWII. Over the past decade, Moore’s Marauders, as they’ve come to be known, have evolved into a global organization of nearly 400 volunteer members, comprised of retired military personnel, forensic anthropologists, forensic pathologists, scientists and scholars who donate their time to finding or at least determining the fate of the thousands missing in action.
“The Marauders are like Marines. There’s no problems; there’s only challenges,” says Colonel Jim Lucas, a retired Marine and board member for Moore’s Marauders. “That’s basically how Ken deals with things. He’s one motivated, dedicated patriot.”
Moore’s Marauders is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that receives no government funding. Families of missing military personal can hire their services for just one dollar. Each day Moore says he receives between one and 40 email inquires from families of missing military personnel on his website, www.mooresmarauders.org.
His teams travel the world scouring the jungles, mountains and waters of foreign countries for the remains of military servicemen. Using global positioning systems to locate crash sites and graves, as well as DNA-assisted identification, they have successfully learned the fate of nearly 200 American soldiers and thousands of former foes.
“We work for the family,” Moore says. “And we will go anywhere in the world, anytime, any place, and we will bring them home.”
Semper Fi- Always Faithful
“As an old Marine, one of the first things they tell you going through Marine boot camp is that you never leave anyone behind,” says Colonel Lucas. “Tarawa is one of the areas where we left a lot behind. Those types of things are a heavy burden on Marines past, present and future.”
Because of the large number of fatalities on Tarawa, hundreds of servicemen were buried on the island. Of the thousands killed during the battle, 655 have been accounted for, including 186 who were buried at sea as their bodies drifted into the ocean. Subsequent recovery efforts have located an additional 90 men whose bodies have been recovered but not identified.
More than 500 remain unaccounted for.
Today, the Tarawa Atoll is heavily populated, with many buildings and houses having been built over gravesites.
Over the years there have been several reported accidental findings of soldier remains on the island. While laying a new waterline, construction crews discovered the remains of three men, two of whom were later identified. In 1999, while widening a road, a tree was unearthed. Among its roots were the remains and identification tag of a solider who had been listed as M.I.A.
Last year, after decades of public scrutiny, Congress passed an amendment to recover the remains of the M.I.A.s on Tarawa. That’s what spurred Moore and his Marauders to get involved.
“America’s missing servicemen are a major social issue that has not been identified or recognized for what it is,” Moore says. “Our government is not doing what it should, what it could. That’s part of the tragedy. Something does need to be done.”
This summer Moore’s Marauders will travel to Tarawa to conduct interviews and pinpoint burial sites. If allowed by the government, the Marauder’s scientists, equipped with the latest in ground penetrating radar, will immediately follow. Currently, two of the Marauders are on Tarawa doing preliminary recon.
“What we’re finding there right now is awful. There are 522 Navy and Marines on Tarawa. It will take them many years, if not a decade, to bring home a large portion of those,” Moore says. “If the American people do not get involved, the government will just declare the whole island is a grave and walk away from it. And that would be a terrible thing.”