Great lengths, cost as U.S. identifies remains of 11 missing in WWII bomber

ARLINGTON, Va. – The 11 men inside a B-24 Liberator bomber that went missing over Papua New Guinea in November 1943 were among more than 2,000 World War II flyers whose bodies are believed littered across the archipelago’s towering, mountainous terrain. Now they are finally, officially, found.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that the remains of all 11 have been recovered and identified, 67 years after they disappeared, and 26 years after officials first learned of the wreck site in a dangerous, landslide-prone ravine in 1984. It is the latest example of the extraordinary determination – and high cost – of the U.S. military’s mission to recover the human remains of fallen fighters scattered across the world.

The military’s Honolulu-based Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, sends teams of servicemembers into jungles, onto cliffs, even underwater to recover the remains of fallen troops from past wars.  In the last decade, though, the Pentagon shifted its priorities, searching a bit less for 8,019 missing Korean and 1,703 missing Vietnam War troops, and a bit more for the men missing since World War II. Of the 74,000 whose bodies never came home from that war, the U.S. believes the remains of 33,000 are recoverable.

“Bring them home” is not just a saying. I spent a week on Papua New Guinea’s island of New Britain in 2008 reporting for the Boston Globe on a JPAC mission to recover the remains to two F4-U Corsair pilots in two wrecks amid steep jungle canopy. I can attest to the Pentagon’s commitment. Wreck sites are treated like an archeological crime scene, uncovered grid square-by-square with painstaking care. Think Indiana Jones meets “CSI."

But it is rare to recover so many bodies at once. Indeed, it can cost the U.S. millions of dollars to return just one body.  Nobody questions the commitment. And even with the Pentagon in the middle of a belt-tightening, few question – publicly, at least – the cost.

The B-24 (serial no.: 42-40886) piloted by 23-year old Army Air Forces Technical Sgt. Charles A. Bode, of Baltimore, Md., left Port Moresby, the capital on New Guinea’s southern coast, on a nighttime search mission for Japanese radar along the north coast, according to PacificWrecks.org, an extensive online database of WWII wrecks. (See photo of the crew here.) It had to cross the treacherous Finisterre Mountains, a 10,000 foot wall of earth jutting from the sea.  Like many others, the aircraft never returned. The bomber had been in country just four months.

According to Pacific Wrecks, an Army team visited the site in 1984, recovering some remains.  A team in 1986 found the location so steep, members said the rest of the crew was unrecoverable, but a year later another team though it was possible. On a 2004 visit, locals delivered more remains they had found.

There will be more wrecks.  For decades, the military relied on adventurers who flew helicopters and small plane into Papua New Guinea’s interior, collecting village reports. Today, PNG is in the middle of a mining boom, and with each new road that is opened villagers report finding more American aircraft wrecks and human remains, as they did this B-24 crew.

"Every American that comes home is a victory and good news," said Justin Taylan, Pacific Wrecks director, who feels most WWII remains can be affordably located. "The problem is not finding such sites, but the bottleneck of identification and recovery."

"Since 'no man left behind' is part of the U.S. military's promise to our war dead, the price tag of recovery of any American, from any war, should never be too high for us to afford them," he said.

The crew will buried, as a group, at Arlington National Cemetery memorial service on March 24.

They are:

Army Air Forces Technical Sgt. Charles A. Bode, 23, Baltimore, Md.
1st Lt. Richard T. Heuss, 23, Berkley, Mich.
2nd Lt. Robert A. Miller, 22, Memphis, Tenn.
2nd Lt. Edward R. French, 23, Erie, Pa.
2nd Lt. Robert R. Streckenbach, Jr., 21, Green Bay, Wis.
Tech. Sgt. Lucian I. Oliver, Jr., 23 Memphis, Tenn.
Staff Sgt. Ivan O. Kirkpatrick, 36, Whittier, Calif.
Staff Sgt. William K. Musgrave, 24, Hutsonville, Ill.
Staff Sgt. James T. Moran, 21, Sloatsburg, N.Y.
Staff Sgt. James B. Moore, 21, Woburn, Mass.
Staff Sgt. Roy Surabian, 24, Medford, Mass

Finding the Fallen: Boston Globe Special Report
POW/MIA command hoping digs for soldiers' remains will resume in North Korea
JPAC team on mission to recover remains of U.S. servicemembers missing from WWII


comments Join the conversation and share your voice!  

from around the web