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Once among the 80,000+ missing service members, a WWII Navy aviator is laid to rest

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today is National POW MIA Recognition day. More than 80,000 service members who served in the last century are still unaccounted for. One of those missing until recently was Navy aviator Wilbur Mitts. He served in World War II and was laid to rest this week in his hometown, Seaside, Calif. Doug McKnight of member station KAZU reports.

DOUG MCKNIGHT, BYLINE: A military funeral is a ballet of precision and grace. Six sailors in dress whites accompany the casket draped in an American flag. For Wilbur Mitts, this honor comes 80 years after his bomber was brought down by Japanese artillery over the Pacific Ocean. It was the final year of World War II.

DIANA WARD: September 10, 1944. And that was his last assignment.

MCKNIGHT: Diana Ward is Mitts' niece.

WARD: So it was closer to him coming home than I had ever realized. And that was a sad part of it.

MCKNIGHT: She describes a deep connection with her uncle even though they never actually met.

WARD: I was born three days after he died.

MCKNIGHT: She sits in her home and points to photos of young Mitts. He's roughhousing with his older brother and smiling in front of an aircraft with his flight crew. A scratchy record made in an arcade booth captures his voice forever. He's singing a popular song of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILBUR MITTS: (Singing, inaudible).

MCKNIGHT: She says her uncle's death was agonizing for her family.

WARD: Thinking that missing part that isn't there - what would it have been? What other cousins would I have had? What would I have learned from him?

MCKNIGHT: Mitts' mom rarely spoke of him, but she would take flowers and lay them in the ocean because he didn't have a grave.

WARD: I'm sure that not being able to even visualize or know where he was shot down was a big missing hole in her heart.

MCKNIGHT: The family has answers now thanks to a man named Pat Scannon. He leads a nonprofit called Project Recover. The organization works to find those missing in action. In this case, the first thing they identified was an aircraft wing in a lagoon.

PAT SCANNON: We immediately recognized it as a wing of a certain type of aircraft - a TBM Avenger, which was a torpedo bomber.

MCKNIGHT: Scannon walks on the manicured lawn of the military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco. White grave markers form straight rows. A black POW MIA flag hangs from a pole. Scannon's a former military doctor. He's dedicated his life to helping service members return home and bury their remains, often in places like this. Scannon's search in this case was slow and grinding over 20 years.

SCANNON: We found part of a tail section. We found part of - other little bits and pieces.

MCKNIGHT: At first he was just using scuba gear. Eventually Scannon partnered with a nonprofit at UC San Diego to use underwater drones. They found the cockpit, then the remains. Dr. Carrie Brown supervises the identification of recovered MIAs for the military. She says when her team finds remains, they look for identifying characteristics.

CARRIE BROWN: Dog tags, wallet. How tall were they? How old were they when they died?

MCKNIGHT: In this case, the team used DNA and dental records to identify Mitts. No other country goes to the extent of the United States to find service members missing in action and return them to U.S. soil.

BROWN: It's a promise to our nation. It's a promise to our current-day service members, and it's a promise to everyone who was lost and their families who are still waiting.

MCKNIGHT: Back at the funeral, seven sailors raise their rifles and fire a traditional three-volley salute.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ready. Load.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS CLICKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Aim. Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

MCKNIGHT: The casket is lowered into the grave. A family finds closure and a promise kept that no one be left behind. For NPR News, I'm Doug McKnight in Seaside, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Doug McKnight
Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.
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