Aircrew brings WW II comrades back from watery grave

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. W. Michael Houk
  • National Guard Bureau
A Kansas Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker crew from the 190th Air Refueling Wing returned the human remains March 3 to American soil after a recovery team recovered from a downed B-24 Liberator shot down near the Pacific island nation of Palau Sept. 1, 1944.

According to military reports, the Army Air Forces B-24 was involved in a fight between American and Japanese forces over the island and suffered anti-aircraft fire. Three of the crew reportedly bailed out, one without a parachute, before the bomber crashed into the water.

BentProp officials, a privately funded organization that searches for planes and their crews who crashed after being shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and 1945, found the crash site in 2004. They reported it to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, who for the last three years investigated and recovered the remains from the site. The Kansas Guard members flew to the island to bring the remains of the aircrew to Hawaii for identification.

"That seemed like a pretty good thing to do to give some closure to some families back home in the states," said Master Sgt. Mark Mertel, a member of the 190th ARW.

"It was really moving to see that island and kind of imagine what might have happened that day," said Maj. Jeff Warrender from the pilot's seat, "It really made me think about how brave those guys must have been and what they might've gone through before they died. To see how beautiful the island was, it was just kind of eerie."

Local officials met the KC-135 crew on the runway.

"A lot of my relatives were here during the war, and a lot of them went missing and we never found them," said Jennifer Anson, an executive assistant to the vice president of Palau. "I'm happy for whoever's family has that peace of mind now, knowing that their family members are being returned back home."

Navy divers sat in the back of a large truck with their cargo -- two sealed black cases containing the remains of the B-24's lost crew. These divers, dispatched by JPAC to this site, spent 1.5 months recovering the remains under 70 feet of water.

At the tanker, Capt. Jarrod Ramsey, a pilot, and Master Sgt. Matt Miltz, a refueling boom operator, carefully helped the divers who handed the cases up from the truck into the side cargo door of the KC-135. With the remains secured on board, the KC-135 aircrew took off destined to Hawaii where the remains of the B-24 crew would be examined forensically by JPAC experts to verify their identities. Once identified, the servicemembers will be flown the rest of the way home to their families.

"We've had some fairly long days, and not a lot of ground time," Sergeant Miltz said. "But it's all been worth it, helping to bring these people back."