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