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77 years later, a pilot killed in WWII is finally found

By KATIE DOWD | SFGate, San Francisco | Published: October 20, 2020

SAN FRANCISCO (Tribune News Service) — U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Earl W. Smith Jr., was just 22 years old when he took off on the last flight of his life.

The Oakland man was serving with the 80th Fighter Squadron in the Pacific Theater of World War II. On Aug. 20, 1943, Smith climbed into his Lockheed P-38G Lightning on an airstrip near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. His fighter group was set for a strike mission against an enemy air base in Wewak, part of a series of raids to take out the Japanese Fourth Air Army.

The mission went well, but on the return trip, something went fatally wrong. Fellow pilots report Smith was close to home when, flying low over a ship, one of his wings appeared to clip the water. His plane crashed off Paga Point before Smith could bail out. The young pilot was presumed dead.

Tragically, despite the best efforts of his squadron, Smith's body wasn't recovered. After the war ended, the American Graves Registration Command tried again to find him, including looking for remains that washed ashore, but declared Smith non-recoverable in 1949.

For decades, Smith was presumed forever lost. But in 2002, a few recreational divers came across the wreckage of a WWII-era plane near Paga Point. The intel made it to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a branch of the Department of Defense which finds and recovers American military personnel who went missing or were prisoners of war. In 2014, the DPAA signed off on a recovery mission and in 2018, a team of divers was sent to the site.

There, they found possible human remains among the wreckage. DPAA scientists compared those remains to dental records and sent samples to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System for mitochondrial DNA analysis.

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