Why America scours the earth for its fallen servicemembers
By RICK HAMPSON | USA Today | Published: May 25, 2012
The fallen navigator waited until dawn to crawl from the jungle. His back was broken, his jaw ripped open by shrapnel. There was a bullet hole in his left leg.
In the night, Lt. Jose Holguin had parachuted from a burning B-17. Painted on its nose were a scantily clad woman and the words "Naughty but Nice." Now the bomber lay before him in pieces.
He hobbled to the plane's mid-section, where he saw the charred, mangled bodies of two of his nine comrades. He fired his pistol twice, signaling the crew to rendezvous. He heard nothing in return.
This is when he made his hardest decision — to flee — and his most important promise, one as old as war. "I told the men that I couldn't take them with me," he would recall. "But I would be back to take care of them."
That was June 26, 1943, on an island in the Southwest Pacific, at the height of World War II. Many vows like Holguin's were uttered in the war. But when it ended, 79,000 Americans were missing and presumed dead. Half were virtually unrecoverable — lost to the deepest oceans, highest mountains or thickest jungles.
So when the war ended in 1945, Americans mostly got on with living. The dead rested where they fell.
Today, that's changing. No nation has ever tried so hard to recover so many remains from battlefields so distant and so old. This is manifest each Memorial Day at new grave sites bearing remains discovered or identified over the past 12 months. Since Memorial Day 2011, the bodies of 79 servicemen from wars past have been accounted for, including 20 from World War II.
The military's "full accounting mission," originally focused on Vietnam, is expanding. As many World War II cases have been investigated over the past two years as in the six previous, according to the POW/MIA Accounting Command. Last year, the war was the focus of a third of the military's 63 recovery expeditions.
Only the United States has the technology, the personnel (a force of about 600) and the money for such a task. Recovering a single set of remains can involve everything from ground-penetrating radar to hand-panning mud, and easily cost a million dollars.
Why such an expensive, virtually open-ended commitment?
For one thing, "we say we never leave a fallen comrade" — living or dead, says Irving Smith, a former Army Ranger officer. Recovering their own remains is part of the ethos that binds units of warriors.
Leonard Wong, who teaches at the Army War College, says that in the post-9/11 era, the mission fills a national need to express support for troops and their families. Diane Mazur, a University of Florida law professor and former Air Force officer, likens it to the reverent treatment of victims' remains at Ground Zero.
Sometimes the military cannot or will not do it alone. Sometimes it takes a Jose Holguin.
Having survived the crash, he spent two years as a POW. After the war, like most veterans, he moved on. But he didn't forget his promise to the men of Naughty but Nice. He couldn't; it was "like a rumble inside me," he said. And it got louder and louder.
A survivor's quest
At noon one Saturday two years ago, Leonard Gionet found two soldiers at his door in Portland, Ore. They said the remains of his father Leonard — who was killed 67 years earlier, when Gionet was 6 months old — had been identified.
The elder Gionet went down with Naughty but Nice, having never seen his son. Growing up, Leonard had to construct a father out of photos, stories and his father's medals, which were pinned on Leonard at a ceremony when he was 3. The family had long given up hope of having anything to bury or any grave to visit.
Now, he marveled, these soldiers are here as if my father died in Afghanistan.
The discovery was not entirely unexpected; Gionet knew about Jose Holguin.
Holguin had joined the Army Air Force shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1942, he went to the Pacific, where American and Japanese fliers battled under hellish conditions — high mountains, unpredictable weather, poorly charted terrain.
The Naughty but Nice was a flying melting pot with crewmen from seven states. They included Gionet (Jhee-oh-nay) of Massachusetts; Henry Garcia, like Holguin a Mexican American from L.A.; and Frank Peattie, an Upstate New Yorker of Scotch-Irish descent.
Peattie and Holguin were best men at each other's weddings.
"These were men I learned to love," Holguin said years later, "men I depended on for my survival."
He credited Peattie with saving his life in an air raid and standing up for him when other officers refused to accept a Hispanic as what one called "a real American."
By June 25, after the stress of three dozen bombing missions, they were all Americans.
That night they hit a Japanese airfield near Rabaul on New Britain island, off the coast of New Guinea. As they left the target, fire from a Japanese fighter killed the pilot and set fire to the left wing.
Holguin bailed out seconds before the plane crashed, he later told his family. His parachute collapsed in the tree canopy, and he broke two vertebrae in the fall. He limped away, using a branch for a crutch, and inflated his flotation vest to drift down a stream. He caught a few fish and birds and ate them raw.
After almost a month, he was discovered by natives, who tended his wounds and, rather than have their village destroyed, gave him to the Japanese. By war's end in August 1945, only six of his 64 fellow POWs were alive.
At home, the missing airmen's relatives were still waiting for word. "This anxiety is awful," Della Gionet, Leonard's wife, wrote to Holguin's mother.
In the months after he got home, Holguin and his wife, Rebecca, contacted and visited the crew's families around the country. He often was the first to tell them their husband or son was dead. He told Della Gionet about Leonard a month before she heard from the War Department.
Today, families are promptly notified by special military teams that follow strict protocols. Holguin was neither obligated to carry out this mission, nor trained for it. And he did it, his son Curt says, while suffering from post-traumatic stress.
One father, bereft over the loss of his only son, tried to legally adopt Holguin on the spot. When Holguin visited Henry Garcia's home, his wife was so afraid of what he was going to say that she hid in a closet with her children. Their grandmother was left to meet the messenger.
A dream deferred
The moment he heard the war was over, Holguin said, he had one thought: "How do I get back into the mountains for my crew?"
Other obligations took precedence. In 1946, the Holguins had the first of seven children. He rose to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force before leaving in 1963 for a career as a Los Angeles school teacher and administrator.
Finding the crash site seemed unlikely; there were hundreds on New Guinea and its surrounding islands, most hidden by jungle and eroded by tropical rains.
Unfulfilled, Holguin's vow seemed to take a toll, his son Curt recalls. At times this man, so solicitous toward his comrades' families, showed flashes of violent anger toward his own. He could be abusive to his wife, neglectful of his children, inflexible and autocratic.
The rumble inside him would not be still.
By 1981, Holguin — his children largely raised and educated — had time and money to make good on his promise. American attitudes toward recovery of war remains were changing. Some relatives of troops listed as missing in Vietnam demanded an accounting, spurring the government to act.
That summer, he went back to New Britain.
He tracked down villagers he'd met in 1943 (including a woman who had treated his injuries) and spread the word that he was looking for the crash site. When he came back a year later, an old man led him and other searchers into the jungle.
They climbed a gentle ridge, hacking their way through undergrowth. Suddenly, they came on an open B-17 cockpit — control columns, seat backs, instrument panel. The right inboard engine fire extinguisher control was switched to "on." He'd flipped it just before bailing out.
Nearby, Holguin found the plane's nose half buried in the ground. His crew lifted it up. There, on the left side, was the Naughty but Nice pinup girl.
There was no sign of human remains.
It was the same when he came back a third time, in 1983. Before giving up, he searched New Britain's war archives. There he found an old U.S. Army report.
In 1949, natives had directed an Army survey engineer to a crash site where he found wreckage he could not identify and partial remains of several bodies in a shallow grave. The only clue was a gold ring inscribed "HG."
The bodies were sent to the Army's forensic skeletal lab in Hawaii, then as now the world's largest. When attempts at identification failed, the remains, case "1B 28" were buried as unknown in Punchbowl, the vast military cemetery in Honolulu.
Holguin told the Army that these were his buddies, and Rebecca helped him get Sen. Alan Cranston of California to intervene to have the bodies exhumed. In February 1985, they were identified as Sgt. Robert Griebel, Lt. Herman Knott, Sgt. Pace Payne, Lt. Frank Peattie (Holguin's best man) and Sgt. Henry Garcia — the ring's "HG."
'Thankful that he is home'
They were reburied in their home towns. Holguin attended each service, pinning the men's medals on their relatives and sometimes giving them a piece of the plane he'd retrieved.
Garcia was last. "We are thankful he has been returned to us," Holguin said at the grave. "We are thankful that he is no longer among the unknown. We are thankful that he is home."
When congratulated, Holguin demurred, "There are four men I haven't found."
Army expeditions in 1983 and 1984 found no remains. In 1987, Holguin went to Japan and spoke to an airman who saw Naughty but Nice go down. Holguin thought Gionet also might have parachuted out. But the observer told him, "I saw one parachute."
Holguin was still following leads in March 1994 when he died of a sudden heart attack. He was 73.
The case seemed closed. But a military expedition to the crash site in 2001 discovered equipment, coins, rings and badges belonging to the crew, as well as human remains that could be subjected to DNA analysis.
It was nine years before soldiers were sent to Leonard Gionet's door. DNA identified only Payne and Griebel, both of whom had remains buried in 1985. Since other remains found in 2001 could not be linked to any particular crewman, they were attributed to all nine (including Gionet, Lt. William Sarsfield, Lt. Charles Trimingham and Sgt. Robert Christopherson).
They were buried in a single coffin at Arlington National Cemetery last September. Twenty-eight members of the Gionet family attended. They included his son, who in a sense finally had his father, and his widow, to whom he was married for 391 days.
Della's sergeant assured her he'd return from the war "because a bad penny always comes back." She'd believed him; now, there he was.
At the grave they thought not only of the nine who died in the crash, but of the one who survived. "He could have gone on with his life," Leonard Gionet says of Jose Holguin. "But he thought that was his duty, to bring them home."