The story of Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, journalist Wil S. Hylton’s new book, had an inauspicious beginning. One day in 2007, Hylton read a short newspaper article about the remains of a WWI soldier that had been found on a construction site in Europe. The question of what would happen to the soldiers’ remains piqued his curiosity, so he poked around until he found the United States military unit in charge of identifying the bodies of missing-in-action servicemen. Some months later, he found himself on a 120-foot long, 40-foot wide steel barge full of Navy divers floating in the Pacific waters surrounding Palau.

Nobody aboard wanted to tell Hylton what all the diving equipment and manpower on the ship was being used to look for. Over and over, he asked the same question: What was buried deep in the waters under them? “It was through that process that I realized that there was something under there, some kind of plane, that there’s a whole story there, and that’s the one I want to tell,” he recalls.

Starting out, Hylton had few facts to work with, really just one—the existence of an American military plane on the ocean floor. And there were numerous mysteries: Who had been flying the plane and who was on board when it went down? Why did the plane crash? And, perhaps most importantly, where are the bodies?

“From the moment of the crash until now, it’s been one long process of different storytellers coming in and trying to figure out what the story is,” Hylton says. One of them is the book’s hero, Pat Scannon, a medical researcher from California who stumbled upon a WWII plane that had crashed on Palau while on a diving vacation. He became possessed by the idea of identifying the plane he had found, and others that had ended up on the island, and finding out who was on them. To this end, he scoured U.S. military records, interviewed Palauan elders about what they had seen during the Pacific theater battles fought on the island, and examined the plane crash sites himself.

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With the curiosity and determination of a great reporter, Scannon was an ideal source for Hylton. But the scientist’s hard-won information, which included the Air Force crew assigned to the plane and the names of its members, filled in only part of the picture; it still remained for Hylton to find out who exactly was on the plane the moment it went down, why there was a sudden change of pilots at the last minute, and, most importantly, who these men really were. Where had they come from and what were their war stories?

Hylton turned to a different group of storytellers, the families of the MIA airmen who had never found out what happened to their relatives. He traveled all over the country to meet with the families of the men in the plane, and was surprised at the emotions he encountered in the homes he visited. “I had no idea about this special kind of grief that WWII MIA families still carry two or three generations later,” he says. Many of the families had kept the letters their relatives wrote from the war. These letters, Hylton believes, probably would have been thrown out if the plane crash had been a simple killed-in-action situation. Instead they took on special significance for the families, who desperately wanted to fill in the holes of their loved ones’ stories. With a similar goal in mind, Hylton used the letters to piece together an account of the soldiers’ last days on an island near Palau, leading up to the fatal flight.

In Vanished, Hylton positions himself as a detective of stories, rather than the authoritative storyteller. His work examining the narrative threads that heHylton cover gleaned from Scannon, the families and the military takes Vanished beyond a straight reported piece into the domain of literary non-fiction. “Time and again, I was not only telling the story to the reader but telling the story, or pieces of it, to people who were also telling the story. The story for me ended up being about stories on so many new levels that I hadn’t experienced before,” he explains. It is through this examination of the possibilities of storytelling that Hylton succeeds in gracefully addressing the perennial literary theme of memory and its connection to both personal and collective loss.

This relationship is Vanished’s burning center, even though there is plenty of the adventure—diving expeditions, battle recreations—you might expect of a military mystery. It’s a testament to Hylton’s skill in drawing out the underlying importance of the mission, though, that none of its action feels gratuitous. Hylton convinces us that his characters’ and the military’s efforts are worth the ultimate reward, a sense of relief for the families.

To reveal whether Hylton and his crew of storytellers ever find a resolution to all those mysteries would be to give away the book’s excellent, poignant ending. But, as Hylton explains, families can perhaps find a sense of closure without the definitive story of what happened. “There’s this other kind of answer that maybe is a non-answer but has some satisfying value, that we have tried to understand this and we know that the records aren’t there or it’s too much of a peculiarity of fate to explain,” Hylton says. “In those cases there’s still some relief for the family members because they know that someone really looked and tried, and that they haven’t failed to seek the answer.”

Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She has contributed to Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker and Los Angeles Review of Books.