On March 22, 1944 a U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 bomber churned down the runway of Jackson Drome on the Pacific island of New Guinea. As the plane lifted off and banked to the northeast, a tower controller noted in his log that Bomber 081 was outbound at 2:37 p.m. This flight was one of the war’s routine chores—a quick hop over the cloud-shrouded peaks of the Owen Stanley mountain range, ferrying men, supplies and mail from Jackson to the Nadzab air base 230 miles away. Nadzab, which was mounting heavy bombing raids on the Japanese forces as they fell back northwards, was on the front lines. Aboard the B-24 were a crew of three plus 19 airmen and other soldiers heading back to battle. They never made it; 081 disappeared over the mountains, leaving behind grieving families and a mystery that has endured almost four decades—until now.
The story began to unfold last April when a U.S. Army colonel stepped from a helicopter on the thickly forested upper slopes of Mount Thumb, only 42 miles from Jackson Drome. What he discovered entombed in the forest, tangled in the roots of giant trees, was a mass of metal. On one section, faded but still plain, was painted the bomber’s serial number, the last three digits of which were 081. Lt. Col. David Rosenberg had led a six-man team more than 4,000 miles across the Pacific from the Army’s Hawaii-based Central Identification Laboratory to this forbidding place. “These were American servicemen who died for their country,” he notes. “These were fathers, uncles and brothers. It is our duty to return them to their loved ones.”
Bomber 081 might have remained forever undiscovered in the dense undergrowth except for Australian-born Bruce Hoy. As the curator of aviation at the national museum in Port Moresby, capital of Papua New Guinea, he had set himself the task of tracking down the 500 still-missing Allied aircraft that crashed on and around the island during World War II. Vague stories from a remote coffee-growing settlement led him to advise U.S. military authorities that he had probably located the crash site of a missing aircraft. When Rosenberg’s team arrived on the scene two months later and the villagers were asked for proof, they produced a rusting U.S. Army helmet. The team then hired four of them to make the two-day trek to the mountain site to clear a helicopter landing zone.
The Army experts found Bomber 081, which had struck a tall tree on the ridge, then cartwheeled across a mountain so steep that Rosenberg’s team descended with ropes. “The plane probably strayed off-course,” Hoy theorizes. “The pilot turned to correct this and flew into Mount Thumb. At that altitude [8,400 feet] and time of day, he would almost certainly have been flying in clouds.”
Having discovered the crash site, the team from Central Identification was just beginning its work. It would now have to try to re-create the accident, then—even more challenging—identify the remains and restore them to families long reconciled to the men’s disappearance. Though the wreckage was strewn over a wide area, the 22 aboard were found clustered by the impact near the front of the shattered fuselage, indicating that all had died instantly.
Rosenberg’s men camped at the crash site for six days. They carefully catalogued skulls and bones and retrieved dog tags, pistols, binoculars, a knife, rings and assorted coins. Although they had a manifest of those supposed to have made the fateful flight, technicians in Hawaii spent eight months poring over health and dental records to verify the identities. The families were then notified. “It was satisfying for us,” says Rosenberg, a 25-year Army veteran who has since moved to another post. “We were able to solve a mystery that has bothered the families—it writes the final chapter of the book.” Since 1973 the Central Identification Laboratory has retrieved the remains of 171 other U.S. servicemen killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In the case of Bomber 081, the cost was an estimated $50,000.
The unexpected official word that the men were finally coming home stirred complex and deep-seated emotions in their families. Nearly all of the nine widows of the missing soldiers had remarried. Surprisingly, survivors were found for all the men.
The pilot of 081 was 2d Lt. Robert Allred, 29, a Des Moines lawyer who enlisted in 1942 just after passing the bar exam. “He wanted to fly—doesn’t every young man?” declares Juanita Allred Beck, who was left a widow by the crash. In 1948 she married a Des Moines fireman. The couple have two children and a happy life that has left Juanita with only vague memories of her first husband. “Some things you have to cope with and bury,” she explains. But she has always kept a poignant letter mailed to her in 1944 by Allred’s former aircrew. “There wasn’t a better pilot or officer in the Air Force,” they wrote. “We were all proud to be under his command.”
Allred and his navigator, 2d Lt. Keith Holm of Kimball, Nebr., trained together in the U.S. and flew to New Guinea just a few weeks before the accident. The third member of the B-24’s crew, nose gunner John Robert Campbell, was not on the final flight. He had been ready to leave on 081 earlier that day, but Allred—unable to start one of the plane’s four engines—delayed the takeoff and Campbell went to eat. When he returned to the plane, he found that another man had taken his spot. Now a purchasing officer at a Little Rock, Ark. bank, Campbell, 61, remembers: “We goofed around a day or two and didn’t hear from anybody [on the flight]. So we went to the tower and they said, ‘By the way, the plane’s missing.’ That was the first we knew.” Thumbing through the musty diary he kept throughout the war, Campbell passes over his 53 combat missions to find the entry for March 22. “Our pilot and navigator took off for Nadzab with 29 men [sic] and we have never heard from them,” he wrote. “I really hate to lose them. They were both swell fellows and good men.”
Many of the close kin of the men on the flight grieved more keenly. Day and night for the past 35 years an American flag has flown in front of the Myron Lawrence home in Chippewa Falls, Wis. Not the same flag, of course, for the winds of the Northern winters tear Old Glory to shreds—once a tornado did likewise. But each time Myron, 71, has raised a new flag—he calculates there have been about 75 of them. He has done it with the hope that someday his younger brother Stanley would return. Finally Myron and Cecelia Lawrence could proudly plan a military funeral. “I want him home,” says Myron.
The sentiment is shared by others who have kept the flame burning. “He’s sorely missed,” says Inez Smith, 80, of El Paso, Ill., aunt of 2d Lt. Emory Young. Over the years Smith had watched the newspapers for some hint of her nephew’s fate. When she read an initial report on the plane discovered on New Guinea, she compared it with a yellowing clip of Emory’s disappearance. The dates matched.
Andrew Ginter, 58, of Buffalo believed that his brother, Frank, might have somehow survived. “I always thought there was a chance Frank might make it back,” he notes. Partly it was disbelief that someone so young and self-assured as his older brother could die so easily. “I saw him leave for the service,” he recalls. “He was in full uniform. He even had his gun with him. I was quite impressed.” Andrew never saw his staff sergeant brother again.
For some of the survivors, the relatives they lost aren’t even memories. A West Virginia miner’s wife with two children, Penny Coleman, 39, has no recollection of a father she never met, Charles Samples Jr. Her mother was pregnant with Penny when the 25-year-old sergeant from Smithers, W.Va. disappeared. Nine years later Coretta Samples married Cecil Zickerfoose, who became Penny’s much-loved stepfather. She now finds herself faced with the tragedy of 081 for the first time. Explains Coretta, 62: “She’s so tore up—my husband raised her and she doesn’t know any other daddy. She called tonight and said ‘Daddy, you know I love you.’ And of course he does, he understands.”
Army Sgt. Weldon Frazier was 23 when he mailed a letter dated March 22 to his mother, Ida, in Palestine, Texas. “Just a few lines to let you know I’m alive and kicking,” he wrote. There were no more letters, only a telegram from the Army a month later that confirmed Ida’s fears. For 20 years she was unable to admit her son was gone, and she still treasures his letters. “I’ve tried to keep Weldon’s memory fresh,” she says. “I didn’t want to forget him.” When the years of waiting ended, Ida was relieved. “It’s good I don’t have to wonder anymore,” she says. The family is planning a memorial service for Weldon, the one Ida could never bring herself to arrange. “I’m just so grateful,” she says. “Instead of being in a strange jungle, he’s finally able to come home.”
So the final flight of Bomber 081 is over at last, but the Pentagon is far from closing the books on World War II, Some 75,000 U.S. military personnel were listed as missing in action in that conflict. Other crashed planes and wrecked ships will be salvaged—a solemn reminder that war’s human costs never end.
Written by JOHN SAAR, reported by JOHN DUNN in Port Moresby, STU GLAUBERMAN in Honolulu and correspondents in various bureaus