Capt. Joseph W. Geddes
1st Lt. Saul Albert
1st Lt. Emil Gentry
2d Lt. William A. Bujold
2d Lt. Leon S. King
T Sgt. William R. Moore
Cpl John L. Honold
Madeline Bujold remembers Uncle William reading her the Sunday comics just before he shipped out for the pacific. Joseph Geddes Hurst was 14 months old when his father, a bomber pilot, held him close for a family photo. The memory and photo, both still sharp, are 64 years old. So is the reason that brought Bujold and Hurst on Friday to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. They were among 27 far-flung strangers who gathered for the unusual reinterrment for seven airmen whose stricken B-17 Flying Fortress crashed on 21 May 1943.
The crisply conducted service, with full military honors, included a flyover by F-15 Eagle fighter jets. “I am impressed that the government would go to such an extreme, “ said Hurst, who lives in Salt Lake City. His father, Army Air Forces Capt. Joseph Geddes of Logan, Utah, was the pilot of the four engine Flying Fortress that took off from New Guinea with six other B-17’s of the 43rd bomb group for a raid on a Japanese airfield near Rabaul, New Britain. Lt. William Bujold of Rumford, Maine, was the navigator. Rabaul was a key target in the bloody march westward along the islands north of Australia. To the east was Guadalcanal, abandoned only 3 months before by the Japanese after a long grim fight. Geddes’ bomber was hit by fire short of Rabaul. Witnesses saw four parachutes before it crashed into a mountain.
American search teams found the crash site in 1947. A missionary who had been held captive said the Japanese had executed the four airmen who bailed out. In 1951, the army buried fragments of remains, presumably from seven airmen, in a single casket at Jefferson Barracks. A 10 year old Hurst attended the service with his grandparents. The grave site is one of 240 group burials at Jefferson Barracks Cemetery. Many are of air crews that died during world war two.
In 1991, another Army search team found more remains at the crash site. Five years later, forensic specialists initiated efforts to identify them by DNA. “If it takes 100 years we will leave no one behind,” said Johnny Johnson, of the Army’s Prior Conflict Repatriation Branch in Washington. “This is about our nation’s promise to bring everyone home with dignity and respect.” Johnson supervised the two day visit by 27 relatives at government expense. On Thursday night, they gathered at the Holiday Inn in South County, swapping stories and photographs. On Friday, they began at Kutis South County Chapel for a service. Motorcyclists of the Patriot Guard riders escorted the procession to Jefferson Barracks. The bikers, in riding leathers and holding American flags, formed two lines to the gravesite, the same one from 1951. As the last notes of a flawless taps lingered, four F-15s came in low from the east. One eagle climbed vertically for the “missing man” formation with a thunder of power that the B-17 crewman couldn’t have dreamed of.
The Army honor guard gave folded flags to the families “on behalf of a grateful nation. “ The families were duly honored. “ It was so professional, so patriotic,” said Madeline Bujold of Weld, Maine. Charlotte Galper of Needham, Mass., a neice of Lt. Saul Albert, said Johnson’s unit contacted her four years ago to begin the DNA check, “They knew more about my family than I did,” said Galper. Patti Jo Wehrs of Luquillo, Puerto Rico, said her family held a first service Tuesday in Carterville, Ill. just east of Carbondale, to bury some of the verified remains of Lt. Emil Gentry next to the graves of his parents. Other remains of Gentry are with his crewman at Jefferson Barracks. “Grandmother had always said she wanted Emil brought home,” Wehrs said, “It happened.”