Af­ter 64 years, World War II crew’s re­mains com­ing home

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen­nifer Harper

They are quin­tes­sen­tial fly­boys, grin­ning for a for­mal pho­to­graph be­neath the dusky curve of an air­craft nose.

They wear flak jack­ets and the jaunty vi­sored caps of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and there’s sand un­der­foot and shad­owed fo­liage as a back­drop. The plane could well be “the Swan,” their own B-24D Lib­er­a­tor that de­parted from Do­bo­dura, New Guinea, on Dec. 3, 1943, bound for a nearby vol­canic is­land with the prover­bial belly full of bombs.

Capt. Robert L. Cole­man and his crew were right on tar­get that day. They ra­dioed home once with the good news, made con­tact again, a third time — then noth­ing. The Swan never made it back, the fate and where­abouts of air­craft and crew a mys­tery.

Un­til now. Af­ter 64 years, the 11 lost air­men have at last come home.

The De­part­ment of De­fense POW/Miss­ing Per­son­nel Of­fice (DPMO) said April 25 that their re­mains, clas­si­fied as “miss­ing in ac­tion from World War II,” have been iden­ti­fied and will be re­turned to their fam­i­lies for burial with full mil­i­tary hon­ors.

“This is the way we can live up to our na­tion’s com­mit­ment to those guys who went into com­bat and never came home. Some of them were teenagers. It’s a way to keep a prom­ise to their fam­i­lies, even if it’s six decades later,” said DPMO spokesman Larry Greer.

Capt. Cole­man hailed from Wilm­ing­ton, Del.

The rest of the crew in­cluded 1st Lt. Ge­orge E. Wallinder, of San An­to­nio; 2nd Lt. Ken­neth L. Cas­sidy, of Worces­ter, Mass.; 2nd Lt. Irv­ing Schech­ner, of Brook­lyn, N.Y.; 2nd Lt. Ron­ald F. Ward, of Cam­bridge, Mass.; Tech. Sgt. William L. Fraser, of Maple­wood, Mo.; Tech. Sgt. Paul Miecias, of Pis­cat­away, N.J.; Tech. Sgt. Robert C. Morgan, of Flint, Mich.; Staff Sgt. Al­bert J. Caruso, of Kearny, N.J.; Staff Sgt. Robert E. Frank, of Plain­field, N.J.; and Pvt. Joseph Thompson, of Comp­ton, Calif.

All were as­signed to the 63rd Bom­bard­ment Squadron of the 43rd Bom­bard­ment Group, 5th Air Force.

Their repa­tri­a­tion took years — and some mil­i­tary mus­cle.

In 2000, a trio of lo­cal hunters came across air­craft wreck­age in dense forests near Iwaia, a vil­lage on the far east­ern hook of Pa­pua New Guinea. News of the dis­cov­ery even­tu­ally reached the Joint POW/MIA Ac­count­ing Com­mand (JPAC), lo­cated at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and charged with achiev­ing “the fullest pos­si­ble ac­count­ing of Amer­i­cans miss­ing as a re­sult of the na­tion’s past con­flicts,” ac­cord­ing to its mis­sion state­ment.

Two years later, a JPAC team ar­rived to in­ter­view the wit­nesses — but to no avail. They were un­able to re­lo­cate the crash site.

But JPAC per­sisted, send­ing in­ves­tiga­tive teams in 2004 and again last year, ul­ti­mately dis­cov­er­ing and ex­ca­vat­ing the lost B-24. The teams re­cov­ered hu­man re­mains, per­sonal be­long­ings and dog tags. Us­ing den­tal records, DNA com­par­isons, foren­sics and cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence, JPAC sci­en­tists and the Armed Forces DNA Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Lab­o­ra­tory were able to pos­i­tively iden­tify the re­mains.

Funeral plans are now a fam­ily mat­ter.

“Our mis­sion is to ac­count for miss­ing Amer­i­cans. When we’re able to iden­tify and re­turn 11 ser­vice mem­bers, that’s 11 fam­i­lies who’ve got­ten an­swers that they have been wait­ing for many years,” said U.S. Army Ma­jor Brian DeSan­tis, spokesman for JPAC.

“Know­ing we’re able to help heal a wound is truly ful­fill­ing that mis­sion,” he said.

De­part­ment of De­fense

The re­mains of 11 air­men lost in De­cem­ber 1943 are com­ing home from Pa­pua New Guinea. Nine of them — all but the uniden­ti­fied man at bot­tom right — are seen here in a photo from Septem­ber of that year. Funeral plans are now a fam­ily mat­ter.

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