Team off to Aleutians to recover remains of WWII Navy aviators
Searchers from U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii are expected in the western Aleutian Islands this week to attempt recovery of remains of seven Navy aviators who died when their plane was shot down in 1942.
The crewmen were aboard a twin-engine Navy PBY-5A amphibious reconnaissance aircraft that went down on Kiska Island, which Japanese forces occupied during part of World War II.
Ian L. Jones, an Iowa-born associate professor of biology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, came upon the PBY-5A wreckage in 2001 while conducting field research on rats living on the island.
Central Identification Laboratory searchers will arrive via Air Force cargo aircraft on Adak Island, where approximately 4 tons of equipment will be loaded aboard a chartered boat, said spokeswoman Ginger Couden.
“The team, its equipment and a helicopter will be taken to Kiska Island, where team members will stay aboard the boat for the duration of the three-week excavation,” she said.
The crash site is at the 2,750-foot level of Kiska Volcano’s northwest face. Searchers will need a helicopter to reach the site.
According to military records, an American search team found the aircraft wreckage in 1943 and buried the crewmen in a common grave at the crash site, Couden said.
John Cloe, historian for the Alaskan NORAD Region and Alaskan Command at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, listed the crew casualties in his book, “The Aleutian Warriors,” a history of the 11th Air Force and Fleet Air Wing 4.
The crew of the PBY-5A, assigned to Patrol Squadron 43, consisted of pilot Warrant Officer Leland Davis, co-pilot Ensign Robert F. Keller, Petty Officers 3rd Class Albert L. Gyorfi, Robert A. Smith and Elwin Alford, and Petty Officer 2nd Class John H. Hathaway.
Military records list the seventh crewman as Seaman 2nd Class Dee Hall.
“Attempts were made in 1946 and 1947 to recover the servicemembers but teams could not reach the site due to heavy snow,” Couden said.
Cloe’s account of the mission in his book, extracted from the Naval history of Patrol Air Wing 4, indicates the pilot and crew headed into flak-filled skies over Kiska. Their plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire.
“Suddenly, the PBY came apart in a violent explosion,” historical records say. “Pieces of burning metal fluttered down on the hillside below.”
Cloe said pilot Davis “was the last casualty of what was called the Kiska Blitz,” the consistent bombing of Japanese targets in Kiska Harbor.
The laboratory recovery team is visiting Kiska when snow and ice accumulation is expected to be minimal.
“This time of year they can expect clouds, rain and fog but no snow, even at the 2,500-foot level,” said National Weather Service spokesman Dave Percy, adding that winds in the area mostly are under 29 mph but can kick up to 35-40 mph.
The recovery team consists of nine specialists with skills in forensic anthropology, logistics, photography, medicine, explosive ordnance disposal and mortuary affairs.
Couden said the team is one of 18 based in Hawaii that search for and recover remains of American military and civilian personnel unaccounted-for from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Cold War.
The laboratory has identified more than 1,100 individuals previously listed as unaccounted-for since it began operations in 1973.
Due to recent advances in forensic science, investigators sometimes use mitochondrial DNA from a maternal-line blood sample to compare to DNA from a bone fragment of a deceased servicemember. The comparison can lead to positive identification of remains.
“We used mitochondrial DNA in about 50 percent of our cases in the last five years,” Couden said.
She said laboratory officials encourage family members of unaccounted-for servicemembers to submit a reference DNA sample “so that it is on file if we determine later we need to compare samples.”
Couden said records indicate more than 78,000 Americans are unaccounted-for from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War and 1,800 from the Vietnam War. Also, 120 servicemembers are missing from the Cold War and one from the Persian Gulf War.