On June 14, 1942, Oklahoma native Dee Hall and six other Navy crewmen took off from Kodiak in a Navy plane to attack the Japanese on the Aleutian island of Kiska, which the Japanese had invaded eight days earlier.
Amid stormy weather and Japanese anti-aircraft fire, their flying boat exploded, littering the side of Kiska Volcano with pieces of burning metal.
Like 78,000 World War II servicemen, they remained unaccounted for. Until now.
The Department of Defense announced Wednesday that all seven servicemen have been identified through DNA testing and dental forensics.
Hall is the first returned to his family. He will be buried today at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio with full military honors.
Other members of the crew included pilot Leland Davis, copilot Robert Keller and crewmen Albert Gyorfi, Robert Smith, Elwin Alford and John Hathaway, according to information on the POW Network Web page.
Their families are still working through the briefing process, where they review with the agency reports on the testing.
The Japanese held Kiska Island until July 1943.
“The Japanese were on Alaskan soil. Strategically, it was not very important, but psychologically it was very important,” said Joe Stevens, president of the Kodiak Military History Museum.
The Japanese intended the Aleutians Campaign to divert American forces from other battles in the Pacific and to psychologically jar Americans by establishing a foothold in their nation.
Kodiak was the headquarters for the North Pacific Campaign.
After U.S. forces retook Attu at the western tip of the Aleutians, the 5,100 Japanese troops at Kiska Harbor sneaked out the night of July 28, 1943.
U.S. and Canadian forces invaded anyway, and 313 allied soldiers died from “friendly fire,” mines and bobby traps, according to the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area.
An American search team found the Kodiak crew’s PBY-5 Catalina on the side of Kiska volcano. They buried the crew in a common grave with a wooden marker reading, “Seven U.S. N. Airmen.”
In 1946 and 1947, search teams attempted to relocate the crew but were hindered by heavy snow. The seven missing crewmen were dubbed “non-recoverable.”
Sixty years after the plane from Kodiak crashed, Ian Jones, a Nova Scotia biology professor researching the impact of Norway rats on Kiska’s auklet population, told the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office that he’d found the wreckage of a World War II plane on Kiska volcano.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command excavated the crash site in August 2003 and found debris from the plane and personal items from the crew.
The remains were found near the wooden marker.
Laboratory analysis, including DNA testing and dental forensics, led to the individual identification of all seven crewmen.
Hall’s sister, Lee Gordon, told The Associated Press that her brother, 18 when he died, didn’t even live long enough to have a Social Security card or a girlfriend.
“We’re just so grateful that he’s finally coming home after 63 years,” Gordon said. “They’re still finding people and bringing them home to their families. To me, that’s important. They never gave up.”
The POW/MIA office reports that of the 88,000 unaccounted for Americans from conflicts since 1941, 89 percent are World War II servicemen.
In October, the POW/MIA office identified the remains of three World War II airmen whose plane crashed in Panama in 1941.
The department also is working on a recovery case from the Pearl Harbor attack, said Larry Greer, public affairs officer for the Department of Defense POW/MIA matters.
“Finding World War II missing in action is a difficult detective case,” he said. “These remains are more than 60 years old, but there’s a much larger number.”
The central identification laboratory in Hawaii, which identified the Kiska remains, also has worked on identifying remains from a Civil War submarine and has successfully identified a World War I soldier, though his identity has not been announced as the agency works with his family.
Most Americans are unaware that such extensive efforts to recover soldiers’ remains continues after a conflict, said Ken Terry, who heads the POW-MIA section of the Navy casualty office.
He said it may take one to five years to identify remains, especially if the servicemen died in a group, such as was the case with the Kiska crash.
“We’re all trying to resolve these issues for the family, to provide closure for the families and honor the men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Terry said.