14 April, 2006
WWII flier remains found
The Norman Transcript, Oklahoma
Military funeral service set Saturday in Duncan
By Carol Cole
LaVoice Forbes still carries a tiny, dog-eared photo in her wallet.
The couple-inch-wide photo is of her only sibling, World War II Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Wilburn "Willie" Rozzell, his arm around a girlfriend from Oklahoma City.
The flier is finally coming home to "Lee," the nickname he used for his little sister, who is now a resident of Norman's Rose Rock Villa.
Rozzell's remains were found in the wreckage of a B-24 D Liberator in Papua New Guinea, with his identity recently verified by DNA testing.
He will be remembered at a military funeral at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Don Grantham Funeral Home Chapel in Duncan, with Army Chaplain Carl Johnston officiating.
The 23-year-old tail gunner and eight other crew members belonging to the 63rd Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bombardment Group, 5th Air Force, went missing the evening of Nov. 4, 1943, after a strafing mission on a 10-ship Japanese convoy in the Bismarck Sea.
Forbes always had wondered what happened to her charismatic big brother, whose contagious, rakish grin and cocked hat provided a clue to his popularity with the ladies.
"He was a loverboy," she said. "He was absolutely awesome -- had such an outgoing personality."
Their story started in Duncan, with Rozzell born Dec. 29, 1919, to Goldie and Peter Lester Rozzell. Forbes was born five years later.
Rozzell joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and served at now-Altus Air Force Base; Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas; Santa Monica, Calif.; Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.; Will Rogers Field, Okla.; and Hamilton Field, Calif.
He served with Hollywood movie star Clark Gable, who already was famous at the time. He wrote his sister, mentioning the star in a yellowed letter she still keeps tucked in a plastic sleeve.
"Clark Gable qualified at 28,000 feet. Cream puff. But he was older than I. He got cramps at 28,000, so they brought him down. I qualified at 47,000. It kinda hurt my ear drums, but at that altitude we can fly so high that the Germans or any other country can't get [too] close to us. I'm glad I could stand to go so high," Rozzell wrote.
Military documents provided by the family indicate an official of the Papua New Guinea government notified the U.S. Embassy in March 2002, that human remains had been found in a steep, narrow gully about 10,800 feet above sea level in deep forest.
The location was near the Sarawaget mountain range close to the Yalumet Village in Morobe Province, about one-and-a-half days' walk from the nearest settlement, the Imom village.
Although the site was found by local residents about 10 years later, it was thought to be dangerous and was only reported several decades later.
"His plane tore up as it went down, it disintegrated," Forbes said of the plane which two young villagers reported seeing on fire just before it crashed.
An 11-member team from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, or CILHI, interviewed witnesses and investigated the crash site in 2002.
Large portions found of the B-24, described as well preserved, included a tail number and aircraft skin with the names of three of the crew members.
A CILHI recovery team deployed for 35 days to excavate the site in August and September 2003. The site was a difficult one, but in the nation's tradition of attempting to find fallen American warriors, they persevered on the inhospitable 60-degree slope.
A landing zone was hacked out of the forest and about 35 local residents were recruited to help.
The CILHI found several identification tags and bracelets and repatriated the remains, personal effects and artifacts back to the CILHI for identification analysis.
What is known is the B-24D was piloted by 1st Lt. William M. Hafner and 2nd Lt. Arthur C. Armacost III on an armed-reconnaissance mission over the Bismarck Sea.
The bomber was equipped with radar units in place of its belly turrets and assigned the mission of low-level night reconnaissance and attacks on shipping. It had 12 hours of fuel on board.
At about 6 p.m. Nov 4, the plane departed Dobudura, New Guinea, bound for Kavieng, New Ireland, Bismarck Archipelago. About 50 miles south of Kavieng, they encountered a convoy of Japanese ships. Command radioed at about 9:35 p.m. that they were to continue to shadow the 10-ship convoy to their limit of fuel.
Just after midnight, an identified crew member radioed that the crew had scored three direct hits on the convoy.
The last message from Rozzell's aircraft at about 1:20 a.m. Nov. 5, was a request to "turn on the radio range," but failed to provide the aircraft's position.
The bomber's clock shows it crashed at 1:21 a.m., one minute after its last call.
Although the site was thought to be off course for the bomber, the most direct route back to Dobudura would have been over New Britain, which was occupied by the Japanese. By the pilot skirting New Britain, there a reasonable explanation for the plane to go down where it did.
Later it was found there was insufficient evidence to believe the nine crew members had been captured. They were later declared to be lost at sea near the New Britain/New Ireland area and presumed dead.
Rozzell was awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart and memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery in Fort Bonifacio in Manila, Philippines.
But the CILHI team determined there was more than sufficient evidence to notify the families of crewmembers that their loved ones -- at last -- had been found.
There are still more than 78,000 American servicemembers missing from World War II, according to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, 8,100 from the Korean War, 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War and one from Operations Desert Shield/Storm.
Rozzell's family knows they are some of the lucky ones. They will be there to remember him Saturday.
He is also survived by his nephew Larry Forbes and niece Connie Sue Chappell, both of Norman; and nieces Kay Forbes of Nashville, Tenn., and Carol Ann Jones of Oklahoma City.
"I think it's a little sweeter way to think about it," Chappell said of the United States finding her uncle.
Rozzell's remains will be buried at the Duncan Cemetery, next to his mother and father under a monument with a picture of Forbes and Rozzell when they were kids. Bearers will be the Honor Guard of the United States Army.
"It's a closure that I've been waiting for for years," Forbes said. "I just wish my mother and father were alive."
Carol Cole 366-3538 firstname.lastname@example.org