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Pilot's Body Found After 64 Years
by David Ferrara, Press Register June 18, 2008

A modest slate of granite no more than 3 feet wide and 2 feet long rests a few steps from a live oak tree at Pine Crest Cemetery. It is 9,000 miles from the body that belongs beneath it.

The marker states: "Lt. W.L. McVay, Jr. USNR/Dec. 16, 1917/Feb. 22, 1944/Killed in action in Saipan." Next to it are a pair of headstones for his mother and father.

Until recently, no one had a clue where McVay's body lay. After the Navy squadron leader's F6F Hellcat was shot down over the Pacific, the military categorized McVay as missing in action and dead.

Woodie Lackland McVay left behind a wife and a daughter, along with his grieving parents.

For decades, his family wondered.

On the other side of the world, there is a white stone cross that looks like all the others.

It stands as grave two, row 12, plot F at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines. The inscription reads: "Here rest in honored glory/a comrade in arms/known but to God."

The only name associated with the serviceman there was "X-35."

Then, this month, that all began to change, when World War II researcher Ted Darcy received a report on the body in the Manila grave.

Darcy had been trying to track down McVay's remains for more than three years, poring over dozens of files. He found him when he received a report from the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Va.

The burial records matched. The height was barely a half inch off McVay's 5-foot-9cm HALF-inch frame. The dental records were almost identical to those in McVay's military file.

Darcy was able to match 12 fillings and extractions in McVay's mouth. "That's rare," he said.

Last week, the report that connected McVay to the spot in Manila was sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) on Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

JPAC is in the process of verifying that X-35 is indeed McVay, but Rob Richeson, a JPAC official, said he and others are "pretty positive" that it is.

The exhumation process, he added, "should move reasonably quickly." In government-speak, that's several months, but for McVay's family, they're closer than they've ever been to bringing him home.

McVay's sister died in January. But in an interview with the Press-Register weeks before she passed away, Dorothy Carstens said she wanted her brother buried at Pine Crest, next to their parents.

His widow, the former Annie Ruth Heidelburg, now Annie Ruth Owen of Bay Minette, remembers their short, but happy marriage, and the day she gave birth to their only child, Diane.

Diane died in 1995, having never known her father.

As hopes of identifying McVay have risen, Owen has found herself reflecting on their brief marriage, and the day he left for war, a day after their daughter was born. "I keep thinking about all that," she said.

McVay's body was buried and dug up four times after his plane was shot down, according to Darcy.

The Army first exhumed him from a makeshift Saipan grave on July 17, 1944. An autopsy was performed, and he was identified by the name stitched in his underwear.

But in the rush of war, the autopsy report and the location of McVay's body were lost, Darcy said. His body was interred at a military cemetery in Saipan in October of that year, as an unknown.

In March 1948, the body was taken to a mausoleum in Saipan, where the military kept other unidentified war dead. In October that year, the body was placed on a ship to the Philippines, where X-35 was buried on March 30, 1950.

McVay, meanwhile, had been declared dead in January 1946.

McVay's granddaughter, Elizabeth Huff of Birmingham, has spent the last three years learning about him. She spoke with family members and McVay's friends, and read letters from fellow veterans. She said she believes he deserved a funeral with full military honors, a chance for the family to say goodbye and cry.

She wants "an ending to the grief," she said. "There's got to be a beginning and there's got to be an ending. When you don't have closure, you might cry, but there's not an end to the crying."

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