Last month, at age 82, Bryan Moon led one last adventure into the jungle in search of America's missing soldiers.

Moon has spent the last 20 years wading through New Guinea streams, being chased by warring native tribes and fleeing gunfire from Italian mobsters -- all while tracking down crash sites of World War II airmen missing in action.

Moon, through his nonprofit MIA Hunters, led 32 volunteers, including 25 from Minnesota, on a search for crash sites and closure for missing soldiers' families. The group was the largest such U.S. civilian mission ever.

Using firsthand accounts from villagers and pilots' families, they said they found 50 possible sites of downed American pilots. That information, turned over to the U.S. government, could help answer questions about what happened to 250 or more lost airmen.

At a press conference on Monday at a Bloomington hotel, Richard Carroll, an 89-year-old WWII veteran who still has a German bullet lodged in his heart, thanked the volunteers for searching for his fellow soldiers. He was shot down and captured in Hungary in 1944 and was considered MIA for six months.

"Every POW was once an MIA," said a tearful Carroll, who lives in Eagan. "You can't imagine the feeling that I have today, how to express my thanks to you people."

A passion for the missing

Moon, a retired Northwest Airlines vice president, found his passion for MIAs through his curiosity about planes.

Moon went to China in 1990 to search for missing WWII bombers. He found three, and one still had human remains inside. That prompted him to research missing WWII soldiers -- a staggering 76,000.

"That was the number that blew me away and made me an MIA hunter," he said.

Since that trip, Moon and his family have spent countless hours researching possible crash sites, organizing trips overseas and searching for missing Americans.

The trips weren't smooth sailing. In southern Italy, group members were shot at and their plane caught on fire. On another trip through the jungle, scouts led the mission through a warring tribe's territory. The MIA Hunters had to be airlifted out of a battle.

The crew always made light of the danger and came back for more, said Dona Moon, Moon's daughter-in-law. On the May trip, guides killed a python and threw it on her as a joke. The joke became dinner.

"I may just start a cooking show called 'Cooking with Dona' because I cooked the python," she said.

On Monday volunteers chatted while crew cameraman Kyle Gallagher played a DVD compilation of the group's jungle journey, complete with rocky cliff climbs and nervous volunteers crossing a raging river on a rickety makeshift bridge made of branches.

"No one said it would be easy," Moon said with a chuckle.

Reaching difficult places

Despite physical obstacles and funding woes, MIA Hunters potentially helped locate hundreds of missing soldiers.

Crews hired locals to find sites where "white people haven't been before," Moon said. Then volunteers went places even the government couldn't because of politics. The volunteers pay their own way, which can cost up to $11,000. None are allowed to take valuable vintage materials found at the sites.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Defense recognized the MIA Hunters as the most successful civilian assistance group for finding MIA soldiers. In all, volunteers have located 89 American, Japanese, German and Italian MIAs. During his time as group leader, Moon has been invited to the White House and spoken with the media.

Moon said he wants to pass on the torch and hopes to spend more time with his wife, Cicely, who is battling cancer.

"Everything above my neck is working, but everything below can't make another trip," Moon said.

He admits it will be hard to pass on what he has committed his retired life to doing.

"I get letters every week saying, 'Can you find my father? Can you find my brother?'" he said. "I don't know who can or will take this on; this is a full-time job."

Alex Ebert • 612-673-4264