Gray clouds rimmed with bright edges hung low over the horizon near the south Pacific island of Espiritu Santo. Winds teased the palm fronds in gentle sways as a deep rumbling, alien, but in the last months, familiar to this tranquil place, echoed through the jungle then back to its source: Twin engines of a U.S. Marine Corps PBJ, a version of the Army Air Force’s famous B-25 Mitchell, warming up under the long shadows of a fading day.
On board, 7 crew members finalized check lists as the plane sat at the end of a runway carved from the jungle. Off to one side more PBJs and other aircraft sat idle, some undergoing maintenance from shirtless ground crew, others alone and ready to go should the order come. On the other side were the tents where hundreds of occupants passed time shooting the breeze, writing letters and planning for tomorrow’s routine.
When the PBJ growled louder and began its takeoff role, these men paid no attention, it was too commonplace here. Another night training run. And as the plane’s wheels left the earth and rotated into their recesses, the 7 aboard had no idea they had just crossed the gulf between life and death, the aircraft taking them to their rendezvous with history on sun glistened wings, linking them forever to a world that knew only war.
In 1994, aircraft wreckage found in the higher elevations of Espiritu Santo was determined to be of WWII origin. Furthermore, fragments of human remains and personal effects were located in and around the site. Portions were recovered and sent to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the military unit tasked with solving MIA cases. There they resided until 2000, when several JPAC teams returned to the site and began excavation. More remains and artifacts were found and submitted for DNA testing.
The results were conclusive. Using relatives DNA, tests positively identified the following individuals:
Marine Corps 1st Lt. Laverne A. Lallathin of Raymond, Wash.; 2nd Lt. Dwight D. Ekstam of Moline, Ill.; 2nd Lt. Walter B. Vincent, Jr. of Tulsa, Okla.; Tech. Sgt. James A. Sisney of Redwood City, Calif.; Cpl. Wayne R. Erickson of Minneapolis; Cpl. John D. Yeager of Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Pfc. John A. Donovan of Plymouth, Mich. The men who flew that PBJ off into the night 68 years ago.
They are among some 73,000 who never came back from World War II.
MIAs have garnered attention in recent decades, specifically those lost in Vietnam, due to lingering questions about whether some were alive when left behind. An entire cottage industry of movies, novels and, as usual, scam artists thrived in the 1970s and 1980s focusing on this specific war of which (at the time) some 3,500 were missing.
WWII missing took somewhat of a backseat in publicity until this attention played out, but as time went on and more technology, namely, DNA, became available, identification could be made on bone fragments recovered years before, providing a final chapter for the living to close the book of uncertainty about their loved ones with a funeral on American soil.
In 2005, an organization called the WWII Families for the Return of the Missing was founded to work with JPAC, as it travels the far reaches of the globe to investigate battle and wreck sites.
Some of the more well-known recent searches was the return to Tarawa Atoll, to locate the bodies of 139 Marines, one of them a Medal of Honor recipient, Sandy Bonneyman, that remain buried in an unmarked location. Some have been found but progress is slow.
Another foray has been to Iwo Jima trying to find Marine Sergeant Bill Genaust, who filmed the motion picture version of the famous flag raising, as Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the still picture that went on to become the most famous photo in history. Rosenthal came home alive, but Genaust was buried by explosion during the fighting in one of the many underground caverns that dot the island.
He too, is yet to be found.
JPAC contains around 400 personnel from all military branches and operates five detachments. three permanently based overseas and 2 local detachments at based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Oahu, Hawaii, where the headquarters are located.
The 5 detachments comprise about 18 teams in total, each numbering 10-14 people led by a team leader and forensic anthropologist. Recoveries of remains or personal items are sent to the most important section of the command known as the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), where identities are determined. Once the process is complete, remains are then turned over to next of kin for burial, as well as personal items of the deceased. Any military effects are sent to another laboratory on the U.S. mainland.
All this goes on under the watchful eye of a flag officer, the unit’s commander. This officer ensures all assigned under them uphold the Command’s simple motto: “Until They Are Home”
There are tens of thousands of American sons lying in the deserts of North Africa, in the forests of Europe, within the jungles of the Pacific, and under silent seas, who still await the final chapter of their life to be chiseled in stone.