World News

A World War II Mystery Is Solved, and Emotions Flood In

Posted May 28, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT

After the B-24 bomber carrying 2nd Lt. Thomas V. Kelly Jr. was shot down off the coast of what is now Papua New Guinea in 1944, his parents had a gray tombstone etched with a drawing of the plane and the words “In Loving Memory.”

The 21-year-old bombardier’s remains were never recovered, and for years, his relatives rarely discussed the pain they felt over his death.

“There were Christmas songs that would come on that my mom couldn’t even listen to,” said Diane Christie, Kelly’s niece.

But in 2013, one of Christie’s second cousins found a website with information about the bomber he had been on. That led to years of archival research, culminating in a recent search of the ocean floor by a team of oceanographers and archaeologists.

A few weeks ago, Christie’s phone rang as she was shopping for groceries in Folsom, California. Her sister was calling to say that Kelly’s plane — nicknamed Heaven Can Wait — had been found.

“I literally walked outside Whole Foods, and I burst into tears,” Christie said. “And I’m like, where did this come from? I didn’t even know my uncle.”

Heaven Can Wait is one of 30 U.S. aircraft retrieved by Project Recover, a six-year-old nonprofit that collaborates with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, the arm of the Pentagon tasked with finding and returning fallen military personnel.

The group says its recoveries show how new sonar and robotics technologies make it far easier to find planes that crashed at sea, and that were once thought lost for good.

“It really opens up the possibility that more families can learn what happened to their family members who have been missing all this time,” said Patrick Scannon, president of the BentProp Project, a California-based nonprofit that cooperated on the effort to find the B-24.

Since 1973, the Pentagon has recovered the remains of 2,381 U.S. service members and civilians, according to the military’s data. Of the more than 72,000 U.S. service members from World War II who are still unaccounted for, approximately 26,000 are considered possibly recoverable.

The Pentagon says the number of missing U.S. service members identified worldwide has been rising in recent years, thanks largely to advancements in forensic science.

But as time passes, identifying remains grows harder, and it becomes more difficult to find surviving family members who can provide DNA samples, said Sgt. First Class Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for DPAA in Washington.

“Time’s not necessarily on our side,” she said.

Before searching for missing aircraft, the Project Recover team tries to pinpoint the crash locations by interviewing veterans and analyzing historical records and modern satellite imagery. Then it searches with tools that can include thermal cameras and a sonar-equipped robot that looks like a torpedo and swims just above the seafloor.

The recovery and identification of remains from these underwater sites are conducted at the Pentagon’s discretion. Of the 30 aircraft that Project Recover has found so far, 27 are associated with 113 missing service members, and the remains of five airmen have been repatriated.

The Heaven Can Wait bomber was found last year in Hansa Bay, on Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, where five U.S. aircraft are believed to have gone down during World War II.

Kelly’s bombing mission on March 11, 1944, was part of a U.S. effort to disrupt Japanese shipping and supply chains before attacks that spring on a Japanese airfield nearby and another 360 miles northwest, said Michael J. Claringbould, a historian in Australia who specializes in World War II-era aviation in the Pacific. Many Japanese military personnel would eventually flee into nearby jungles and die of starvation.

Much of the research that helped the Project Recover team pinpoint the bomber’s location in Hansa Bay was conducted over several years by a team of family members led by Christie’s second cousin Scott L. Althaus.

Althaus, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said his project began on Memorial Day five years ago with an online search for information about Kelly. “It snowballed from there,” he said. He later sent Christie and three other family members to the World War II archives at the University of Memphis, where they photographed more than 800 documents associated with the plane and its crew from the U.S. Army Air Force. (The U.S. Air Force was not established until 1947.)

He also spoke by phone with a scuba diver in Belgium who had once lived near Hansa Bay and offered guesses about where the bomber might have crashed.

Althaus said the point was never to find the plane, but simply to honor Kelly and the other 10 men who had been in it. “Each has a family and a future that they didn’t get to inhabit,” he said.

The bomber was found in Hansa Bay last October, the year after Althaus’ aunt contacted Project Recover.

Using Althaus’ research as a guide, the team’s scientists found the plane’s debris field after 11 days searching about 10 square miles of the bay’s seafloor with scanning sonars and underwater robots. Project Recover would not comment on the cost of the mission, although Scannon said that large ones typically cost $200,000 to $400,000.

The Pentagon has not yet decided whether it will try to recover and identify the 11 crew members of Heaven Can Wait, Lt. Col. Kenneth L. Hoffman, a DPAA spokesman in Hawaii, said in an email. He added that selecting a site for excavation could take months or even years.

Christie, 61, said by telephone that receiving Kelly’s remains would provide even more closure for her family. She has now read all of the letters he wrote home during the war, she said, and his grave in Livermore, California, has recently taken on new significance for her.

To honor Kelly and the other crew members, a B-24 bomber flew over the cemetery three times Sunday. A 21-gun salute and flag-presentation ceremony were also held.

“It was wonderful,” Christie said. In his correspondence, the young bombardier’s tone is often optimistic, even as he acknowledges the hardships and dangers of his assignment. In one letter, he digresses to say he took a break from writing to eat a quart of ice cream.

Christie said she was struck by how very young her uncle had been, and by his constant concern for how his family was dealing with his absence.

“If we are lucky we might get home by next Christmas, but it’s hard to say for sure,” Kelly wrote on Feb. 1, 1944, shortly after his 21st birthday.

“How are Mom and Dad?” he wrote on Feb. 29, less than two weeks before he died aboard Heaven Can Wait. “Are they doing a lot of needless worrying?”