Nieces’ Search for Their Uncle’s WWII Plane Wreckage Takes Them Around the World

Almost 70 years after Lt. Mike Zanger crashed in the jungles of Rabaul, his nieces went in search of his figher plane.

Marcy Hanigan delights in sharing pictures of her mother and uncle.

One rare and cherished photo appears to be from the late 1920s. It is a black and white image of a pretty, tall, leggy girl and a younger boy in high-waisted shorts and striped knee socks. Hanigan’s mother, Grace, drapes a protective arm over her younger brother Mike.

Hanigan said her mother rarely spoke about her little brother.

“Uncle Mike’s death really knocked the life out of her. She never got over it,” Hanigan said.
Lt. Mike Zanger was a Marine, a pilot in World War II who died as a prisoner of war under the Japanese.

Hanigan said his death left a hole in her mother’s heart, and in many ways a hole in her life.

“I wanted to know my uncle. I didn’t realize there was such a void,” she said.

It was a loss and a yearning she shared with her sisters, Andrea and Susan. Ultimately their aching curiosity led them to Henry Sakaida.

Sakaida, a forensic historian, had been studying Zanger since 1981.

For nearly thirty years he had undergone the patient task of requesting documents from the government and the military. He had poured over files and papers and interviewed Japanese pilots who had seen Zanger in captivity.

Click here to learn more about Zanger's captivity and a Japanese pilots' request made to Sakaida

Sakaida knew details of Zanger final months: Zanger had crashed in Dec. 1944.

He had been a Corsair pilot, one the Japanese feared, Sakaida said.

“It was a heavy fighter plane. It was very powerful and heavily armed. It was just a formidable opponent,” Sakaida said.

Zanger was flying a mission over New Guinea when he collided with his wingman and sustained major damage to his plane. Zanger’s plane started to spin; he bailed out, parachuting into the jungles of Rabaul.

Sakaida said Zanger had a survival pack that included a one-man rubber dinghy. Sakaida believes he boarded the raft and set off in the bay to escape.

“He had had gone quite a distance but the little rubber dinghy is painted yellow – so it could be seen from the shore. It was easy to see him in the bay like that,” Sakaida said.

Zanger was captured by a Japanese navy patrol boat and “languished in captivity for six months,” Sakaida said.

Military reports noted that Zanger was shot trying to escape captivity. But Sakaida contends that could not be true because the Japanese were cruel to their prisoners, and Zanger would not have been physically capable to escape the guards and make a run for it.

Upon reading the Zanger’s autopsy report, Sakaida discovered that Zanger “had lots of fractures and broken bones but no gunshot wounds and that led me to believe that he was beaten to death and not shot.”

Twice, Sakaid, determined to share the truth with Zanger’s family, left notes where the pilot was buried.

Years later, Hanigan and her sisters found Sakaida. The persistent historian who had been so diligent said he was “flabbergasted.”

Sakaida suggested the group take a trip to the other side of the world. He suggested they travel to Rabaul, New Guinea, to search for the plane.

He laughs when he recalls the reaction of others:

“My friends would say, ‘What? You are taking three old ladies to Rabaul? To the jungles?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’”

Both Sakaida and Hanigan say the trip would have been impossible without the expertise of Justin Taylan. founder of Pacific Wrecks, a non-profit dedicated to finding and preserving fighter planes from World War II.

Hanigan said these two men gave her the “gift of a lifetime.”

Taylan had coordinates for where the plane went down, and where the wreckage should be, but when they got to the exact location, the plane was buried in years of mud, muck and mosquitos.

Taylan spoke the local dialect and shared Zanger’s and his nieces’ story with the villagers, who cleared the brush from the area, and bailed out the water so that what remained of the plane could be retrieved.

Hanigan described them as some of the kindest and most humane people she has ever met.

Now pieces of the wreckage were laid out before them. But was this Zanger’s plane?
In order to confirm, the group scoured each piece of the wreck in search of an identifying mark.

Most corsairs were built by Vought, but Lt. Mike Zanger flew a plane built by Goodyear.
They needed to find the Goodyear stamp. Hanigan said it was grueling and precise work.

“We were looking for a very small stamp that was smaller than a dime,” she said.

One of the local women came over and asked Hanigan’s sister to draw the logo – it was a capital “G” with a smaller capital “A” inside of it.

Hanigan said what happened next is a moment she will never forget: “The documents said our uncle’s plane had crashed at 2:30 in the afternoon and at 2:30 in the afternoon on the dot we found the identifying mark. It was really magical.”

Hanigan and her sisters wept at the sight of the logo. They were in the presence of their uncle’s plane; they were touching the pieces he touched.

“I don’t think I am the same person,” Hanigan said.

Despite having never met her Uncle Mike, she now feels a real connection with him, and standing there with her sisters over the wreckage was a way to honor him.

Hanigan said, in many ways, the journey was for their mother.

“I think she would have been moved to tears over this,” Hanigan said. “It would have meant so much to her. She would have been real proud of us. I know that. “ Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif"; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

Follow NBCLA for the latest LA news, events and entertainment: iPhone/iPad App | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Instagram | RSS | Text Alerts | Email Alerts

Contact Us