B-24 Crew Not Forgotten
It was only 8 a.m., the day after Memorial Day, but the desert sun was already unforgiving. The heat radiated from the desert floor with a glittery sheen as the anthropologist and the team of soldiers set to work.
The men had worked on Memorial Day too.
For most Americans, it had been a typical holiday marking an unofficial start to summer vacation or the tail end of a long three-day weekend.
But the team’s mission captured the essence of the day. It was a long-overdue effort to recover the remains of 10 men who died when their B-24D Liberator bomber spiraled into a forlorn stretch of desert on April 9, 1944, a year before World War II ended.
“For us, there was no better way to spend Memorial Day than recovering our fallen comrades,” said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hyatt as he scooped dirt with a shovel.
The bomber crew had been on a training flight. Within days, death certificates were issued for each victim, and 10 sealed caskets were delivered to families across the country for burial.
For years, the shallow pit west of this Kern County town was remembered as a war grave, though the military had never bothered to mark it as such. Finally, memories faded and local residents began to use the hole as a garbage dump.
The crash was just one of hundreds of military wrecks that pockmarked the California desert during World War II. But a remarkable discovery by a pair of civilian wreck chasers who found a large number of human bones brought the military back to the site this year.
Seven U.S. servicemen and an anthropologist from Hawaii spent more than a month this spring digging by hand under a scorching sun to fulfill a promise made to all missing Americans who died while serving their country: You are not forgotten.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which was called the Central Identification Laboratory when formed in 1973, has been recovering the remains of missing servicemen for 33 years. The Hawaii-based unit has identified more than 1,300 MIAs from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and Cold War.
Most recoveries are of men who died on foreign battlefields, and identification often takes years. The Mojave mission was different. The military had long ago concluded that everyone aboard the doomed plane perished. And, as such, there were no missing soldiers.
An investigation immediately after the accident had concluded that the B-24 crashed because of pilot error. The case was officially closed the following month.
The crash report described the accident as “spin without engine failure,” caused by the pilot losing control. The emotionless conclusion said simply: “Aircraft: Total washout. Crew: 10 aboard -- 10 fatal.”
“The problem with this case is that we’re going to open up a lot of old wounds,” said William R. Belcher, a civilian anthropologist who works for the military and directed the Mojave excavation.
The first bones were found in August 2005 by amateur aviation archeologists whose hobby is to look for World War II crashes. They reported their finding to the Kern County coroner’s office, which notified the military.
Two coroner’s investigators who examined the site before the military took over laid the bones in anatomical order on an Army blanket and estimated that they amounted to about 30% of a single skeleton.
By the time the military’s excavation wrapped up in early June, more than 1,000 bones, fragments and teeth had been recovered, Belcher said. The material has now been shipped to the military’s forensic lab in Hawaii, where the painstaking and perhaps impossible task of identifying the decades-old remains will be conducted. It could be months before the analysis is completed.
At the time of the crash, a two-paragraph story in the San Bernardino Sun said two unidentified crew members had not been accounted for.
But Belcher believes the bones his team recovered are from all 10 crew members. The plane, which hit the ground vertically and burned, was crushed like an aluminum can, squeezing the crew into a confined space, commingling their remains, he said.
For the family of Sgt. Michael Rudich in Charleston, S.C., the excavation has raised troubling and emotional questions about who or what is buried in his grave, said his niece Marcia Shealey. Rudich, 19 at the time of the crash, and the others were on a navigation training flight from March Field (now March Air Reserve Base) in Riverside County to Redding, Calif., when the B-24 went down. He was the plane’s radio operator.
“My uncle’s death certificate said the cause of death was ‘dissolution of body.’ We now know there was no body in the casket the Army sent my grandmother,” said Shealey, 53, a high school English teacher who was born nine years after Rudich’s death.
“Possibly there may be some remains. But I think that most of the weight is from sandbags,” she said.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Kevin V. Arata said the service’s policy would not allow him to discuss Rudich’s case. But in an e-mail, Arata said that “the Army has never advocated or authorized the weighing down of caskets.”
Despite questions about who or what is buried in Rudich’s grave, Shealey said the family would not agree to an exhumation.
Still, Shealey said her family welcomed the military’s new interest in the crash site. A World War II memento she found while cleaning her mother’s house convinced her “there is a higher power at work here that may finally bring us closure.” On June 15, the day before what would have been Rudich’s 82nd birthday, Shealey found a handkerchief with “Remember Me” embroidered next to the Army Air Forces logo from World War II.
“My uncle had sent it to my grandmother, and my mom had forgotten about the handkerchief. I think it’s a symbol of the memory my family has kept all these years and now our quest for answers,” she said.
It is such sentiments, perhaps, that drove the team at the excavation site.
Hyatt, who is also the team’s photographer, documented the mission on film while the others dug in the hard-packed desert sand, hauling dirt away in plastic buckets. The work is meticulous, meaningful, even reverent. The team roped off a grid network around the crater and used picks to break up the ground, grid by grid, and square-point shovels to scoop away the dirt, which was then sifted through wire mesh, where the larger pieces of human bone and personal effects are trapped.
Staff Sgt. Keith Burnette was screening a pile of dirt, rocks and trash when he found a molar with a filling and a wisdom tooth attached. The entire team gathered around when Burnette announced what he had found.
They examined the tooth like they were admiring a new car and patted Burnette on the shoulder.
Recovering even a single tooth is significant. Teeth can be an excellent source of DNA and can be matched to a serviceman’s dental record. Belcher said dental records for eight of the 10 crewmen had been found.
As the excavation neared completion, he worried how families would react when notified that the remains of their loved ones had been recovered, again.
“All of these guys have graves,” he said. “As far as their families are concerned, they are buried and at peace.”
Belcher said it could be months before the military could provide any answers. Experts must examine more than 1,000 bones, or bone fragments, and teeth. The families of the victims must be tracked down. Then the Army will decide whether to go through the expense of extracting DNA from the remains and obtain samples from family members, usually on the mother’s side.
“It’s going to be very difficult to separate the individual remains,” Belcher said. “We may have to commingle the remains, put them in one coffin and bury them at Arlington and put all of their names on one marker.”
The other crash victims were 2nd Lts. Frank A. Gurley, James W. Shrum, William H. Dethorn and Donald J. Orth; Master Sgt. Jesse H. Church; Sgts. George W. Beck and William C. Mahan; and Cpls. Thomas V. Perry and Morris J. Youngblood.
The Army says relatives may call (800) 892-2490 for more information. To view a video of the excavation site, go to www.latimes.com.