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A homecoming long overdue
by MEREDITH GOAD, Portland Press Herald Writer November 9, 2005
Lisa Phillips of Windham started an organization called World War II Families for the Recovery of the Missing. "Now I'm on a mission," she said.

IN THEIR WORDS

Watch narrated slide shows of two World War II veterans.

John Page served in Australia, New Guinea and in the Philippines, where he had two close encounters with General Douglas MacArthur. He's an accomplished artist and created some pieces based on what he saw during his travels. He lives at the Maine Veterans' Home in Scarborough.

Richard "Mike" Libby served in Japan, where he was to have been in the invasion of Japan. However, the war soon ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is a native of Scarborough and lives at the Maine Veterans' Home in Scarborough.

Second Lt. Joseph Rich was shot down over Burma in his B-24 on Nov. 27, 1943.

Badly burned, Rich was captured by the Japanese and thrown into a prison camp in Rangoon.

He still hasn't come home.

Rich, of Portland, died in the prison camp on Nov. 13, 1944, and was buried there. In 1946, the year after the camp was liberated, his remains were put on board a C-47 transport plane headed for Calcutta.

He still hasn't come home.

On May 17, 1946, en route from Rangoon to Calcutta, the plane crashed somewhere in the country now known as Bangladesh.

Rich still hasn't come home.

Families of the 53 men on board that C-47, including the relatives of Joseph Rich, think these veterans have been missing long enough and that it is past time for them to come home.

Lisa Phillips, a mortgage loan processor from Windham, is Rich's niece. For the past few years, she has been contacting government officials, families of the downed men, the Bangladesh embassy and anyone else who might be able to help her find the missing plane and bring the veterans' remains back to the United States for burial.

She has discovered that the remains of two other Maine men also were on board the doomed C-47. Malcolm Carter of Boothbay Harbor was a tail gunner aboard the B-24 known as "Bugs Bunny," which was shot down by the Japanese on Dec. 1, 1943. His plane crashed into a banana grove.

The other Mainer was 1st Lt. Robert Drummey of Westport, who flew with the 490th bomb group and died in a Rangoon prison camp on Jan. 12, 1945.

In all, the remains of 41 military personnel who had been POWs in Rangoon were on the plane. Also on board were officials from the American Graves Registration Service, the remains of five crew members from the "Bugs Bunny," the flight crew and several servicemen on their way home.

Phillips has managed to track down 30 families of the missing men so far. Most have agreed to contribute their DNA in the event the wreck is discovered so the remains of their loved ones can be identified.

Phillips keeps vintage photos of the men and basic information about them tacked to a bulletin board in her office at One City Center in Portland.

"I think of them all as my family," she said.

Joseph Rich grew up on Sherwood Street off Washington Avenue and worked for a while in a neighborhood market. He was 29 years old when he was shot down in the B-24 known as Maxwell House 2. Rich was the plane's navigator.

Lisa Phillips didn't know her great-uncle personally, though the family resemblance is obvious. She heard stories about him from her mother, who was 8 when Rich died.

Phillips' grandmother - Rich's older sister - always had a photo of him on the wall. When she died in 2000, "I found this whole box of war pictures," Phillips said.

"I even had the pictures of them digging up these bodies and placing them on the C-47," she said.

Intrigued, she started to research her uncle's life.

She started with his IDPF, or "individual deceased personnel file." She discovered that he died on his first mission, bombing rail yards, although she suspects it actually may have been his second. In networking with other World War II veterans, she found the Japanese pilot's account of shooting down the plane and learned that the plane caught fire.

There were 11 airmen on board the plane that day. The pilot, the ball turret gunner and the tail gunner were shot and killed in the aircraft. The other eight crew members parachuted from the plane, and five were shot and killed in the air. The other three ended up in the Rangoon prison camp, where Rich was put into solitary confinement because he was an officer. One of the other crew members died.

"When my uncle was taken in, and this was an eyewitness account, he had burns on 90 percent of his body from the aircraft catching on fire," Phillips said. "He was severely burned, because I talked to the other crew member's sister. He received absolutely no treatment for his burns. She told me that he got a severe infection of his burns, and he was never treated. He died of dysentery, beriberi, malnutrition and maltreatment. I mean, these guys used to get beatings on top of these burns. Can you imagine? He weighed 80 pounds when he died."

Rich was married, Phillips learned, and hid his wedding band in the lining of his pants because the Japanese wouldn't let him keep any personal objects.

"When he was dying, he gave the ring to his crew mate and said, 'Make sure my wife knows I love her,' " Phillips said. "That crew mate, actually, was the only survivor of his crew. He brought the ring back to my uncle's wife after the war. Up to that point, nobody in the family knew. He was just listed as an MIA."

That story gave the shivers to Sarah Sherman, a Southport woman who has written two books about Boothbay Harbor and Southport Island residents who served in World War II.

"Just the fact that the other man risked his life to hold the ring," she said. "That just blew me away."

Sherman helped connect Phillips with the relatives of Malcolm Carter, the flier from Boothbay Harbor whose remains also were on the C-47. Sherman has gotten so swept up in the tale that she's helping Phillips track down other families.

Speaking with one of Malcolm Carter's nephews - one who was named after his uncle - Sherman said she got a good sense of the lasting impression his mysterious end left on the Carter family.

"This unanswered question just hung over them their whole lives," she said.

The remains of World War II POWs typically were buried on site, at the camps, by their crew mates. After the Rangoon camp was liberated, the remains were put on the C-47 to be taken to Calcutta, where they were to be reburied in a military cemetery.

The C-47 crashed within an hour of landing, during a raging storm. Last contact was made at 7:05 a.m. on May 17, 1946.

The crash site, believed to be in present-day Bangladesh, has never been found.

"The pilot said he was going to head towards the storm and head northeast around it," according to Phillips, who has read the crash report.

Phillips has reviewed maps of the normal flight routes and weather reports for the day of the crash. She asked former TV weatherman Dave Santoro for his help deciphering the weather information.

In May, she flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials from the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army Repatriation Family Affairs Division. She showed them on a map the place she believes is the probable crash site based on the flight path of the C-47, the air and wind speed, and interviews with C-47 pilots and radio men.

In July, she met with the press minister at the embassy of Bangladesh in Washington.

"He said they would love to help our country, that they do have airplanes crashed over in Bangladesh," Phillips said.

But first they must get the go-ahead for a search from U.S. officials.

Phillips also has been in touch with an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh, who on Sept. 2 investigated a crash site Phillips believes may be her uncle's.

The attaché traveled to a village in the Madaripur District of Bangladesh, where there was a wing in a field from an air crash that fit the time period. According to the locals, the crash happened about the same time as the C-47 disappeared. The British High Commission in Dhaka doesn't have any known records of a British crash in that area.

The official interviewed older villagers who remembered the incident - there's still a lot of local lore about the crash - and took photos of what appears to be landing gear from the plane.

Here is one 100-year-old local's account of the crash, according to the attaché's notes:

"Subject lived at Tekerhat at the time of the plane crash and witnessed the crash itself. Subject conveyed the following information on the crash - The plane struck a wire and crashed in the river with one wing sticking out of the water after striking the ground and killing several people. The river was very high at that time. Eleven bodies were recovered by local divers. The bodies were buried and then recovered three days later by some foreigners who came in a barge. Many of the plane parts were taken by local people, but the large parts were left there and were soon covered with sand when the river changed course. There is currently a market on the spot where the plane crashed."

In his comments in his report, the attaché notes that the fact that someone retrieved the bodies discredits the idea that this is Rich's plane. But there is no official record of a crash at that site. So, although the probability that it's the crash site is low, he wrote, "There is a certain degree of uncertainty still since I cannot find anyone to claim this crash."

According to Phillips' research, the U.S. government currently spends $1 million per year on World War II research and recovery, searching for the 78,000 servicemen who are still missing in action from that conflict.

Phillips has been to Washington three times now and recently traveled to San Diego to visit with family members of airmen who were on board the C-47. She hasn't ruled out going to Bangladesh to search for the plane herself.

And what will she do with 1st Lt. Rich if she should find him?

"I think we're going to end up putting him in Arlington," Phillips said. "I did buy a grave over here with my grandmother's and my mother's grave in Brooklawn, and I think I'm just going to put the plaque there."

Rich's wife, who was a captain in the Army, died in 1989 and is buried in Connecticut.

"She still visited the family every year" after her husband's death, Phillips said. "She always talked about her beloved Joe. She never remarried until probably the last five years of her life. But she stayed in the same home in Connecticut until she died, just in case they brought Joe home."

If he does come home and the mystery of the plane crash is solved, Phillips won't be stopping there. She feels compelled to help other World War II families in their searches for soldiers who are still missing.

She has begun an organization called World War II Families for the Recovery of the Missing. Its Web site is www.miac47burmawwii.org.

"Now I'm working for all World War II families," Phillips said. "Now I'm on a mission."

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