Capt. Ryan McCown, a U.S. Marine pilot shot down in the Pacific during World War II, lived on in the memory of his little brother, who lived on Page Farm Road at the foot of Tryon Mountain.
The story of Marion Ryan McCown Jr. and the determined and emotional search for his remains 64 years later is the subject of a new book. In "You Are Not Forgotten," author Bryan Bender, the national security reporter for the Boston Globe, traces the story of George Eyster V, an Iraq War veteran who finds his own redemption in his dogged search for the missing U.S. Marine.
The Defense Department's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) located McCown's jetfighter and his remains five years ago, and Bender covered his memorial service in Charleston, S.C. Ryan McCown's little brother was William Vance McCown, who died in 1997. Vance McCown's daughter, Ellen McCown Schwab, lives in Hendersonville.
"I grew up knowing about Uncle Ryan," she said. "Dad would always talk about his brother Ryan coming to visit him. Ryan was in the Marines at that time, and a pilot, and he'd ride his motorcycle from Charleston to Tryon to see Dad, with his fighter jacket on. So he always talked about him in the family. So to have this solved, the mystery solved, and what really did happen to him, where did he go down? Was he captured?"
Meeting Capt. McCown's fellow pilots
Last month Schwab and her cousins traveled to Washington as guests of the author and the Boston Globe Washington bureau, where the reporter is posted. The publisher also invited McCown's fellow fighter pilots.
"What else is so great is meeting and really talking to these soldiers that are in his squadron that are still living," Schwab said. "They're in their 90s. One is a lawyer who is just closing down his practice in Washington, D.C. He took us to lunch and he wants to carry my bag that has three heavy books in it. He carries my bag a couple of blocks down the street. They told us all kinds of stories about Ryan. Ryan was 27 when they were maybe 20, so Ryan was the older guy, and evidently Ryan took that role as sort of looking after the guys."
Flying a Corsair that protected bombers, McCown (who was promoted to major after his death) is believed to have been hit by enemy fire over the Pacific Ocean. He made it to Papua, New Guinea, before he crashed in the jungle.
"They knew the remains were there in at least 1991," Schwab said. "Villagers knew the site was there. When they went over to hopefully collect remains, they knew exactly where they were going. They just weren't able to determine exactly whose site it was. ... And they found enough there, his jawbone and his teeth, that sort of thing, and the dog tags. Once they knew that they were excavating the site, a villager came up with a handful of stuff from the plane and said 'we got this years ago.'"
If the mission to recover Capt. McCown's remains was over, the mystery was not.
Vance McCown, who served for 36 years as Tryon's town attorney, had checked with the Marines periodically about the search for his big brother. Yet the military did not make the connection to the nieces and nephews of Capt. McCown, who had four siblings.
"When they found his remains, they said, 'No living relatives.' They didn't think there were any living relatives," Schwab said. "Or either the military didn't check their facts closely enough. Because here we are. We've been here forever. So that was kind of odd. That was the story that came out in 2008, from the Boston Globe, and it said 'no relatives.'"
The Globe reporter was Bender, who would soon learn that the story was not over.
"The way we found out about Uncle Ryan being found was just happenstance," Schwab said. "My cousin was talking to a friend of hers who was a detective in some police force and she talked about Uncle Ryan being missing in action and he said 'Well, let me see if I can find out anything.' And so he put in the name and then there was the article that had just come out a month earlier."
Once Schwab's male cousins underwent DNA testing, the military confirmed the family connection. What followed was an emotional burial ceremony in Charleston, where the former Marine grew up.
"They did this fantastic memorial service for my uncle in Charleston. They wanted to bury him beside his mother and his sister in Charleston," Schwab said. "That's when we really met Bryan. We'd been on the phone with Bryan for months before that. After that memorial I think is when he decided, 'Hmm, maybe I'll make this into a book.'"
Capt. McCown's father, Marion Ryan McCown Sr., had five children from two marriages — a Charleston family and a Tryon family.
"Dad had an older sister, Ryan's sister," Schwab said. "They always treated them as family, just very close, even though her father had gone off and married this much younger woman in Tryon. They didn't have hard feelings and that was always something we talked about, was how close the family was. Because Dad's parents died kind of young but then the older sister kept the connection going between the two families."
Now the McCown cousins have been brought closer still by the story of their uncle and the modern-day mission to close his life with long overdue honor. Among the family members are Schwab's brother and sister in Tryon, William Vance "Bill" McCown Jr. and Katherine McCown Wall.
Schwab's father never forgot his big brother. Seventeen years older, Uncle Ryan was a dashing pilot rumbling up to the 10-year-old's house on a motorcycle in his Marine flight jacket, an image from 1944, frozen in time, embedded in his heart.
Vance McCown always remembered. In You Are Not Forgotten: The Story of a Lost World War II Pilot and a Twenty-First-Century Soldier's Mission to Bring Him Home, Bender has made sure that the world, too, remembers Capt. Ryan McCown.
"That was the story we had all our lives," Schwab said. "There are like a dozen nieces and nephews who carry the story on."
You Are Not Forgotten: The Story of a Lost World War II Pilot and a Twenty-First-Century Soldier’s Mission to Bring Him Home
By Bryan Bender; Doubleday; 336 pages.
Available at Fountainhead Books in Hendersonville, the Book Shelf in Tryon and at Amazon.com.