A local adventurer who dedicated the latter part of his life to bringing home the remains of missing World War II airmen is being remembered by family and friends.
Bryan Moon, 87, died on Nov. 25 in Sarasota, Fla. The former Cannon Falls and Frontenac resident teamed up with his son, Chris Moon, to establish MIA Hunters — a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding the remains of servicemen and servicewomen.
In an interview on Monday, Chris Moon said his father was a true explorer who didn't hesitate to go to some of the most dangerous places on earth.
"I think if he had been born a few hundred years ago and had the chance to find America, he would have been on the boat. He was at heart an explorer and adventurer. What was beyond the horizon was eminently more interesting to him than what was around him," his son said.
Bryan Moon was born on Jan. 13, 1928, in Southampton, England. As a child, he endured the German bombings during World War II. For his safety, his family sent him to live in the country with strangers to get away from the bombs.
Rochester resident Curt Hills, a friend of Moon's who serves on MIA Hunters' Board of Directors, said it was during the war that Moon developed a close bond with American airmen. There was a nearby U.S. Air Force base, and Moon and his friend would ride their bicycles to the base and stand by the chain link fence.
"The would stop and gawk at the airplanes, and the U.S. airmen gave them ice cream cones. And from then on, he had just a tremendous loyalty and a desire to pay back, so to speak," Hills said.
Moon graduated from art school at the top of his class and briefly served in the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force. He started working in advertising for the airline industry in England. He later got a job working for Aloha Airlines in Hawaii and then became a vice president of advertising for Northwest Airlines in Minnesota.
A series of adventures
In retirement, the talented artist set off on a series of adventures. He sailed the Pacific Ocean in a tiny sailboat to Pitcairn Island to meet the descendants of the "Mutiny on the Bounty." He and his son traveled to Africa and filmed a PBS documentary with George Adamson, known protector of lions who gained international fame thanks to the movie "Born Free."
But it was ultimately a trip to China in 1990 that would change the course of Moon's life.
That year he went in search of downed airplanes that had participated in the "Doolittle Raid" — the first bombing of Japan during World War II in 1942. He found the remains of three planes. And it was then that Moon had an epiphany, according to Hills.
"It really started by just looking for aircraft and then it dawned on him, 'What am I doing? What am I looking for aircraft? I want to be looking for our lost pilots, men and women, who have died in these crashes,'" Hills said.
From then on, Moon developed an interest in finding missing soldiers and airmen. In 1997, he and his son traveled to a remote village in Papua New Guinea to meet with villagers who claimed they had the remains of a dead American. It turned out the villagers had the remains of two Americans that had died in a plane crash — Lt. Harold F. Wurtz and Red Cross nurse Elizabeth Gowen of St. Louis Park, Minn. The villagers wanted thousands of dollars for the remains. So instead, the father and son recorded the exact location and notified the U.S. military, which retrieved the remains and brought them home.
Over the course of his life, Moon went on dozens and dozens of missions to find the remains of missing military personnel. Hills said MIA Hunters estimates he helped locate the remains of at least 200 individuals. His son suspects the number is far higher, perhaps even reaching into the thousands. That's because they found some mass grave sites. But they will never know the total number for sure because the military does not disclose how many remains it has retrieved from the sites that Moon found.
"At the end of the day, bringing the dead military soldiers and airmen home, the military doesn't consider that a job for civilians. We did it because we knew there were 68,000 still missing and somebody had to get on with it," Chris Moon said.
The father-and-son team led several volunteer missions to find remains. Individuals would pay $12,000 to $15,000 of their own money on the trips for the chance to spend days searching in remote jungles for crash sites. Cannon Falls family practice Dr. Karl Molenaar went on two trips with MIA Hunters to Papua New Guinea.
"What you remember (about Moon) is his total dedication and service and his enthusiasm in trying to find and locate these lost airmen," Molenaar said.
While Moon certainly took his work bringing home the remains of American soldiers seriously, he also had a lighter side. His son said Moon had a tremendous sense of humor.
"Dad was always doing funny things and half his time was spent seriously painting these whimsical pictures, cats fishing, dogs as president and all kinds of unlikely scenarios," he said.
After his father suffered a stroke, his son repeatedly played his father's favorite song for him.
"His favorite song was, "I Did It My Way," and that is really the story of Dad's life," his son said. "He did it his way. He did things his way and he wasn't interested in anybody else's way."