Fallen veterans home at last
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
First Lt. William Wyatt Patton, whose P-51 Mustang went down in France in 1945, lay buried in a bog for 56 years.
Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser
The Army's Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam plans to increase the number of recovery teams sent to retrieve and identify remains of missing U.S. service members.
Richard Ambo The Honolulu Advertiser
Anthony "Bib" DeLucia was a flight engineer on a B-24 Liberator bomber that crashed in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi after returning from a mission in 1944.
He has returned home.
These missing soldier cases are but two solved by the Army's Central Identification Laboratory Hawai'i at Hickam Air Force Base in its far-reaching mission to reconcile buried or jungle-covered bits of metal and bone with mission, and reunite soldier with home.
For 78-year-old Elmer DeLucia, it means that for just the second Veterans Day of his life, he will be able to say a prayer over his brother's grave today.
"Bib" DeLucia now is buried next to his parents in Bradford, Pa. His remains were moved there last year, 56 years after he died on his 24th birthday, Aug. 31, 1944.
"It's just a fulfillment that he's here and not lying in some other place. You can feel that he is here," said Elmer DeLucia, a World War II veteran who received two Purple Hearts. "It's hard to put into words the gratification you have."
A lot of gratitude, from veterans, active-duty military, family members and private individuals, is directed toward the efforts of Hawai'i identification lab.
Since 1973, the Hickam lab has identified the remains of 1,012 missing service members: 267 from World War II, 23 from the Korean War, 707 from the war in Vietnam, and 15 related to the Cold War.
Johnie Webb, the lab's deputy director, said that despite the success, there is much more to do.
"Our mission continues to increase, continues to grow," Webb said. "Now, we are gaining access to North Korea which is something we couldn't do until about 1996."
There are 8,100 American soldiers missing from the Korean War more than 5,000 of them in North Korea. New information about remains surfaces regularly.
"It's almost, if not daily, a weekly occurrence where information is being reported to us, where people are reporting finds of World War II sites," Webb said.
The lab recently undertook a World War II recovery in Tunisia, and has taken on a number of recoveries in the Pacific.
Patton and his P-51 Mustang were found Feb. 22 when a farmer putting in a drainage system in Longueville, France, hit something with a back-hoe and spotted human remains.
"We had a team there in less than a week," Webb said. "The pilot was still right there. Of course, the aircraft was wreckage, but the pilot was basically there in the cockpit. He still had a leather jacket on."
Patton, of Stark City, Mo., had become separated from his flight leader in fog while returning to base at Wormingford, England, and crashed into the bog. The pilot was 27 when he died on Jan. 15, 1945. Local residents scavenged metal from the Mustang's tail fin, but what was left underground was forgotten for the next 56 years.
A 13-member team from the Hawai'i central lab spent more than six weeks excavating Patton's plane. His remains were returned Monday to Missouri, where he was to be buried Friday with military honors.
Staff, budget grows
World War II Army Air Corps sergeant Anthony "Bib" Delucia was lost and later found in China.
$18 million, up from $10 million to $11 million just years ago. The lab also is changing from an Army-financed unit to one staffed and financed by the joint services.
Next year will see the addition of 50 more people. With that, the Hickam lab will have 18 recovery teams.
There are hundreds of American crash sites in New Guinea, Webb said, and that is one reason for the the staffing increase.
"We simply didn't have the recovery teams to go there and do that work," he said.
Teams are made up of 10 to 14 individuals and include anthropologists, mortuary affairs specialists, linguists, medics, explosive ordnance disposal technicians and photographers.
At the lab, experts work on 20 sets of remains at a time to make an identification, a process that can take three months to several years to complete and that may require DNA testing to make a match.
Webb said 10 teams will be dedicated to recoveries in Southeast Asia, five to the Korean War, and three dedicated to World War II recoveries.
Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, based at Camp Smith, coordinates recoveries in Southeast Asia, and works with the central identification lab.
But the backlog remains.
Webb said at the current pace, the lab may not get to 80 identified sites in Laos until 2006 or 2007.
With the families of missing World War II and Korean War soldiers getting older, Webb said the lab tries to get answers and resolutions of cases as quickly as it can.
"We always hate to hear a family member has passed away before we can get them those answers," Webb said.
Webb said families wonder: Was it a quick death? Was a soldier captured, or did he wander the area for weeks or months?
For 52 years, Elmer DeLucia wondered what happened to his brother on Aug. 31, 1944.
The U.S. Army Air Corps staff sergeant was on his way back to China after a successful bombing run on Japanese ships in Takao Harbor in Taiwan then called Formosa. He didn't make it.
"The mission was very successful I understand they sank three to four ships and destroyed the harbor," Elmer DeLucia said.
Six months later, the Defense Department, then called the War Department, declared the staff sergeant and nine other crew members dead.
Two Chinese farmers in 1996 were looking for herbs near Mao'er mountain in southern Guangxi province and chanced upon the
B-24 wreckage. Human remains, guns, and a St. Christopher's medal were found.
On Dec. 14 of that year, Elmer DeLucia received a call from the Pentagon.
"They asked me if I knew a person by my brother's name, and then they said we have some news for you we've found your brother's aircraft," DeLucia recalls.
The Hickam lab mounted recovery missions in 1997, 1998 and 1999. The Pennsylvania man said it was "unbelievable" that his brother finally was repatriated.
"It's just tremendous to have that happen," he said. "It's something my parents always wanted if he was ever found, for him to be brought back and to be buried next to them."
There have been other successes and firsts for the lab.
Anthropologists from the lab last year found the remains of 13 Marine Raiders who died in 1942 on Makin Atoll, now called Butaritari.
'We can do it.'
Hugh Thomason, whose half brother, Sgt. Clyde Thomason, received a posthumous Medal of Honor for courage under fire, thanked the lab in a letter last December:
"Without your willing cooperation no search of the Makin Atoll would have been made, and absent the professional competence of your searchers no remains would have been found," the letter said. "We next of kin of those fallen Raiders, and the former Raiders who have survived, are fortunate that you said, 'Yes,' and your staff said, 'We can do it.'"
In July, members of Observation Squadron 67, or VO-67, were returned from Laos after Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and identification lab team members mounted a difficult effort to recover crew members of the Navy OP-2E Neptune that went down on a remote jungle mountain top on Jan. 11, 1968.
Some remains were recovered, and a return mission is planned next year.
The lab in September returned from its first mission to Russia's far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula to recover World War II remains.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, a repatriation ceremony is scheduled at Hickam for what are believed to be eight service members killed in the Korean War. The remains were recovered from the Chosin Reservoir and Chong Chon River areas.
Webb said the commitment to return U.S. soldiers home remains strong, no matter when the loss occurred.
"What we do, and especially in the times we're going through now with the terrorist attacks and having personnel fighting on foreign lands," Webb said, "it's important for current-day soldiers to understand what the military, what the government is willing to do to bring them back home."