Old Yearbook Photo Spurs Effort to Find Missing WWII Pilot

yearbook pilot
L-R: John Marcil, John McGrath, Howard McAlonie and Alfred Mahoney, in a 1943 yearbook photo. (Catholic Central High School via AP)

During World War II, four American servicemen who graduated from the same upstate New York high school had their photo taken for the yearbook: a Coast Guardsman, a Navy pilot, a sailor and a soldier. The pilot never made it home and is still listed as missing in action.

Now, 75 years after the four classmates went off to war, an effort to find the pilot’s Pacific crash site is in the works, thanks to that long-ago black-and-white snapshot.

“I can’t say no to a mystery that can be solved,” Justin Taylan, a New York-based WWII researcher involved in the project, told The Associated Press. “This plane can be found.”

The photo of John Marcil, John McGrath, Howard McAlonie and Alfred Mahoney was taken on steps outside Catholic Central High School, then located adjacent to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, near Albany. The young men had graduated from the school two years earlier. All four happened to be home on leave in October 1943 and visited the school at the same time. The photo appeared in the class of 1944’s yearbook along with pictures of other Catholic Central graduates serving in the military.

Marcil went on to serve in the Coast Guard in the European and Pacific theaters. Mahoney served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in Italy. McAlonie and McGrath both wound up in the Pacific, where the two were reunited on Iwo Jima after McGrath landed his fighter plane on the airfield where McAlonie and his fellow Navy Seabees were stationed after Marines captured the Japanese-held island four months earlier.

McGrath, by then assigned to a Marine Corps fighter squadron, flew off the next day for a combat mission over a Japanese island near Okinawa. On July 21, 1945, his F4U Corsair was last seen crashing into the sea near the shoreline during a bombing run. His body was never recovered.

On Friday, Taylan and Michael McAlonie, Howard’s son, presented McGrath’s story to more than 100 veterans and others at the annual Iwo Jima anniversary event held at an American Legion post in Albany. The U.S. amphibious attack on the island began Feb. 19, 1945.

Marcil, the 94-year-old Coast Guard veteran, plans to attend. He’s the last of the four servicemen in the old photo still living (Mahoney died in 2005). He said he remembers his three classmates well, especially McGrath, but there was one thing he didn’t know about the tall, skinny young man.

“I didn’t realize he was as smart as he was,” Marcil said. “You have to be pretty smart to become a Navy flier.”

The elder McAlonie, an RPI grad who died in 2014, had told his son Michael about McGrath and how his classmate’s death stayed with him throughout his life. Last year, Michael McAlonie contacted Taylan, a 2000 RPI graduate and the founder of Pacific Wrecks, whose website is a vast database of thousands of WWII plane wrecks in the Pacific.

McAlonie sought information about McGrath’s final mission and emailed the yearbook photo to Taylan, who found the mission’s details and posted them on his website. Taylan has conducted dozens of searches of Pacific islands for American MIAs from WWII, some of them as a Pentagon contractor. Now, he’s hoping to launch a search for McGrath’s plane, which could still contain the pilot’s remains.

Taylan, of Hyde Park, New York, is talking to his alma mater about collaborating on a project that would enlist the skills of students at RPI, one of the nation’s top engineering and computer science colleges.

One of the RPI professors involved in the discussions said the project could entail students designing and operating such devises as submersible drones to search for McGrath’s plane.

“It’s not rocket science, but if it was, we have people who could do that,” said art professor Igor Vamos.

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