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Long-missing WWII pilot is coming home for burial in North Carolina

By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: September 20, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — More than seven decades after Capt. Fulton Pershing Lanier disappeared over China, the Army pilot is coming home to Harnett County.

Lanier was a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces when he and his C-87 Liberator went missing during a World War II resupply mission. He will be buried at Harnett Memorial Park in Lillington on Sept. 28, the Army announced Tuesday. The service, which will include full military honors, is set for 3 p.m.

Lanier was last seen on Jan. 31, 1944, and was based in India during the war. He delivered ammunition, weapons and food to soldiers in Kunming, China, and was returning to Jorhat, India, when officials lost contact with the plane.

The flight, known as the Burmese Hump, was known for being dangerous, but would have been somewhat routine for Lanier. According to flight logs, the pilot made the nearly six-and-a-half hour flight over the mountain range once every three days and about 30 times in all.

But Lanier and his four-man air crew never made it back to India. They disappeared over the Himalayas, and the Army listed them as missing in action until 1946, when they were officially declared dead.

The Buies Creek native was not heard from again until the early 1990’s, when Chinese and American officials discovered the C-87 crash site at a glacier in Tibet.

Remains of the crew were identified at the time through material evidence, according to Army officials, including a World War II meal card with Lanier’s name on it.

In 1997, a military lab in Hawaii positively identified four members of the air crew, but Lanier was not among them.

Still, the Army hosted a burial ceremony for all five men — Lanier included — at a joint grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 1998.

About 20 members of the Lanier family attended the funeral, including Frank Fulton Lanier, a Smithfield lawyer and former judge who was named after his uncle.

It was Frank Lanier who the Army first notified when they found the crash site in 1993.

“We thought that was the end of it,” he said Tuesday. “We thought we buried all that would be found.”

But several months ago, Frank Lanier said, the family was again called by the Army. This time, most of a skeleton and other items were found at the crash site. The bones matched DNA previously provided by the Lanier family.

“There was nothing to bring home the other time,” said Frank Lanier. “There were no DNA matches to any of the bones. But this is just him.”

According to the Army, the additional remains and artifacts were discovered at the crash site in October 2015 by Chinese citizens. They were later matched to Lanier.

Frank Lanier said the family was impressed and thankful the Army kept looking for his uncle, who was known by the nickname “Runt,” despite being over 6 feet tall.

“We’re very pleased to be able to bring him home,” he said. “But we think of all the families with loved ones that haven’t been found. We feel a hole in our heart for them.”

Lanier’s remains are expected to arrive in North Carolina on Monday, where soldiers will perform a dignified transfer at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

From there, Frank Lanier said the family will drive his uncle to the old family home in Buies Creek, where Lanier was born, to bring him “full circle.”

In Lillington, Lanier will be buried next to his parents.

“Grandaddy always thought he’d come home,” Frank Lanier said. “We’re very glad to be able to bring him home and bury him with his father and mother on Harnett County soil.”

dbrooks@fayobserver.com

©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)
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U.S. Army Air Forces Capt. Fulton Pershing Lanier

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