DNA might bring World War II pilot's remains home
By BOB DYER | Akron Beacon Journal | Published: June 3, 2020
(Tribune News Service) — When the genealogist first contacted him with a seemingly odd request, Jay Musson was skeptical.
He needed a moment to determine whether the letter was legit or, as he jokes, "from a Nigerian prince promising to include me in his will for a small sum."
But the writer was the real deal, a case manager from the American History Co. working for the Department of the Army.
She was attempting to locate relatives of a World War II U.S. Army Air Forces pilot who was captured during the fall of the Philippines, sent on the Bataan Death March and died of malaria in a POW camp in 1942.
Upon his death, the pilot, 2nd Lt. Ralph I. Musson, was tossed in a common grave by his captors at the notorious Cabanatuan Prison Camp No. 1 on Luzon, the country's northernmost island.
Nearly 78 years later, the U.S. government is sorting through the remains excavated from the camp, attempting to identify every American — and give them all proper burials.
The genealogist wanted to find out whether, as she suspected, Akron's Jay Musson is the first cousin, twice removed, of the pilot, who grew up in Massachusetts.
He is, and he agreed to submit to a DNA test in the hope that his ancestor's bones could be identified.
Musson received a kit that included swabs and tubes and instructions to take samples from three different parts of his mouth. Now he is waiting to see whether the other branch of the family will cooperate.
The World War II pilot's father, Dr. William R. Musson, was born in Mogadore in 1879, went to Boston College Medical School and remained on the East Coast, settling in Athol, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Boston. Jay is a descendant of the Musson branch that remained in Mogadore and Akron.
"The DNA strings that are required to identify Ralph's remains are one Y sample from the Mogadore group and three mitochondrial samples from the Athol group," he says.
One of the Athol folks has already submitted a sample. Two others have yet to be heard from. If they don't participate, their World War II relative likely won't receive the honor Jay Musson is hoping for: burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The genealogist "started out with Ralph's enlistment records, found out who his father was and started looking for living ancestors," he says. "She worked backward up into my great-great grandfather, who was born in 1832, then came back down that one side."
While combing through census records from 1880, Musson discovered that his great-great grandfather had immigrated from England and made his living as a wagon-maker.
Learning details about the demise of his cousin was tough to swallow.
The pilot was among the American troops sent to the Far East in late November of 1941, just a couple of weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Relations between the U.S. and Japan were deteriorating, but the Americans, under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, didn't realize how quickly.
Musson's squadron was still waiting for their airplanes to arrive when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of Luzon on Dec. 22. Outmatched American and Filipino troops soon retreated to the Bataan Peninsula, and by early April they were forced to surrender.
Survivors were subjected to the infamous Bataan Death March, forced to walk 65 miles while being beaten, stabbed, deprived of food and in many cases beheaded. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, but the general consensus is roughly 10,000.
Life in the POW camp wasn't much better. The place was horribly overcrowded (8,000 prisoners at its peak), food was scarce and disease ran rampant.
True to his legendary vow, MacArthur eventually returned, but it was far too late for Musson and about 2,800 others who died before the camp was liberated in 1945.
Recovery operations started right after the war and continued off and on until 1951, but it was not until 2014 that DNA science had improved enough to make identification viable. Musson's remains are still in Manila, but will be moved to Hawaii to begin the final matching process if 60% of the relatives' DNA can be collected.
Military service runs up and down the Musson family tree. Jay's father, Irvin J. Musson Jr., was also a U.S. Army pilot, stationed in England, where he served as a "chin gunner" (sitting in a turret right under the nose) during 35 missions on B-17 bombers, the behemoths known as "Flying Fortresses."
Jay himself served in Vietnam, an Army infantryman who participated in 65 combat air assaults via helicopter. There's a reason his license plate reads "SHOT4U." Late one night, he was wounded in a rocket attack. "I was very lucky," he says. "They stitched me up and I was back to work."
After the war, he held a long string of odds jobs before deciding he needed to go to college. He enrolled in the University of Akron and emerged with degrees in accounting and finance.
Armed with those credentials, he spent nearly nine years at the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs in Wade Park, where he was the fiscal officer in the medical research department.
UA has been a frequent beneficiary of a family trust that Jay runs. The Musson Foundation was created when the founder of the Musson Rubber Co., Jay's great uncle, died without any heirs. Today it donates fairly regularly to 200 entities, but particularly UA.
Jay created an American Legion post at UA and also paid for the Musson Veterans Lounge, a retreat on the third level of InfoCision Stadium where vets can socialize and study.
Told that some folks might question why so much time and effort is going into something that happened nearly 80 years ago, he says: "I've gotten that response. Maybe if it was your father or husband or grandfather, and you had listened to all the speculation over the years ... and especially if you are a combat veteran, you always wondered what it would be like if you were dead and whether they found you or not."
Trying to answer that question seems like the least we could do.