WASHINGTON — Limping home from a World War II bombing mission on a stormy night, a U.S. B-24J Liberator slammed into the rocky flank of a remote mountain in southern China. The bomber and its 10 crew members plummeted into the ravine below.
What happened to them remained a mystery until 1996, when Chinese farmers hunting medicinal herbs on the steep slopes of Kitten Mountain in Guangxi Province discovered smashed piles of aluminum and steel that still reeked of aviation fuel. Scattered around the wreckage were the bones of the air crew, whose families had wondered about their fates for more than 50 years.
On the slope of the mountain today, a massive stone monument erected by communist officials pays homage in English and Chinese to World War II cooperation between the two nations. Along with the names of the American crew, the monument displays the date they died: Aug. 31, 1944.
For the U.S. military, however, March 20, 1946, is close enough for government work.
That date, carved in stone at the crew’s final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, was when the Army reclassified the crew members from missing in action to dead. It’s the only official date they have, cemetery managers say.
But to the family members of some of the crew, tombstones that memorialize the date of a postwar administrative action — rather than the day the men died in combat — is an indignity. So for more than a decade, they’ve unsuccessfully tangled with the Army bureaucracy to get the date changed on the large monument marking the spot where comingled remains of the crew are buried.
Six members of the crew are buried individually at the cemetery, with the same date on their headstones.
“I think it’s cheating these guys of what they’re owed,” said J.D. Deming, nephew of 2nd Lt. Robert Deming, navigator on the flight. “These guys deserve a World War II date on their grave for eternity — not a 1946 weather balloon accident.”
The son of one of the flight’s gunners said the families would accept just about any solution.
“Hell, we’re willing to pay to change it,” said James Drager, a retired Navy captain who was 6 months old when his father, Staff Sgt. William Drager, went down in China. “Just make it so when my grandchildren visit there, they’ll see the right date — they won’t be confused that maybe this happened after the war.”
Arlington doesn’t accept private payments, and solutions have been elusive.
Despite promises years ago from Army officials to family members and at least one U.S. senator that a formal review board would determine the correct date of death, there’s no sign that such a review was ever done, the Army now admits.
Nevertheless, the head of the Army National Military Cemeteries recently recommended that family members marshal their evidence of the actual dates of death and submit it for a board review. Again.
Both Arlington and the Defense Department agencies that account for missing U.S. troops have been hammered by scandal in recent years. Mismanagement at America’s premier military cemetery resulted in graves being mixed up and bodies buried on top of each other, a DOD investigation revealed, leading to the firing of a series of cemetery officials.
More recently, numerous reports suggested the U.S. war dead accounting mission was hampered by power struggles and alleged misconduct. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March ordered a restructuring of the mission and the combination of the two main agencies involved: the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.
But the date on the B-24 crew’s group monument isn’t the result of malfeasance or misconduct — federal law establishes the legal dates of death for missing servicemembers, and Arlington can’t unilaterally change it, officials say. It matters little if the date the crew went missing is well-documented, or if the pulverized condition of the wreckage seems to rule out survivors.
It’s an explanation that Drager, unofficial leader of the effort, says he’s been hearing since 2001 or 2002.
“We’ve been through this over and over and over,” he said. “I guess we’ll try and get something together one more time.”
For the crew, their second mission over enemy territory was their last.
The raid was a small part of a daring campaign masterminded by a visionary World War II aviator, then-Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault. He’d won fame for assembling the 1st American Volunteer Group of fighter pilots in China and Burma, later dubbed the “Flying Tigers,” in the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, he persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pump up the size of U.S. air presence in China to target Japanese shipping in the South China Sea. The plan combined daring low altitude daytime bombing attacks on ships with night raids over Japanese ports and bases on the mainland and on the island of Formosa, now called Taiwan.
On the afternoon of Aug. 31, 1944, the 375th Bombardment Squadron lifted off from an airfield at Liuzhou, China, for an attack on the harbor at Takao, Formosa, more than 500 miles east. A Japanese fighter ace, Takeo Tanimizu, shot down one B-24 over the target. And he said he believed he had also badly damaged the plane that later crashed.
As the B-24 struggled home, the Liuzhou airfield came under attack, which forced the pilot, 2nd Lt. George Pierpont, to divert to an airfield to the north in Guilin, which was socked in with bad weather. The plane never arrived, however, and it disappeared for more than half a century.
In letters dated Oct. 10, 1944, an Army Air Forces officer officially notified families of what they already knew — their loved ones were missing. Nearly a year and a half later, another letter was sent, this time from the War Department’s adjutant general’s office.
Because the crew and plane, reported missing in action Aug. 31, had still not been found, the military was declaring them dead, but offering no formal ruling of whether they were killed immediately, had been taken prisoner or met another fate.
“This finding does not establish an actual or probable date of death; however, as required by law, it includes a presumptive date of death for the purpose of termination of pay and allowances, settlement of accounts and payment of death gratuities. In the case of your husband,” the War Department wrote to wives of the crew members, “the date has been set as 20 March 1946.”
In 1997, the year after Chinese farmers discovered the crash site, Drager accompanied personnel from the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, on their first foray to look for remains. The organization has archaeology best since become part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
Drager used his military background to pull some strings and add himself to the mission.
“The colonel in charge of the operation told me, ‘Officially, we’re not allowed to take you in there, but if you happen to show up in Guilin when we do …’”
Chinese locals regaled the Americans with grim accounts of weather on the mountain, as well as the “Five Step Snake” said to infest the area’s dense jungle, with venom so deadly a victim has time to take just five steps before dropping dead. The laboratory planned its mission around the snake’s peak activity season.
Simply reaching the crash site required a strenuous climb capped with rappels down cliff faces to a series of ledges where the pieces of the plane had fallen 52 years earlier. Drager was stunned by the scene.
“I’ve seen enough aircraft accidents that I can tell you it almost looked like it happened last week,” he said. “You could still smell the gas and oil. There were bullets, guns, boots — everything was right there.”
Rain, wind and worsening weather forced the recovery mission off the mountain within several weeks, but they resumed it again in following years. It ended when searchers at last uncovered partial remains of a 10th crew member — Drager’s father.
Though he’d never known the man, Drager said it was an emotional moment.
Throughout his boyhood he had been told he looked like his father and had grown up on stories about his hardiness in the outdoors.
“They’d say things like, ‘You know boy, if anyone’s still over there, your dad’s going to be the one to make it out. Because he was a tough guy, a woodsman.”
Staff Sgt. William Drager and the rest of the air crew returned home to a majestic interment ceremony at Arlington on Aug. 21, 2000, replete with a B-52 flyover and a large contingent of the Old Guard.
At the ceremony, the plaques on coffins showed a 1944 date of death.
Months later, family members who revisited the cemetery were alarmed at what they saw on the stones that had been set in place, J.D. Deming said.
Initial contacts with Army and cemetery officials led them to believe the date change could be made, but nothing happened.
“There’s never any actual pushback,” he said. “It’s kind of caught in a bureaucratic whirlpool, and it just dies again and again.”
Family members next wrote to federal legislators for help, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — for whom Deming was an deputy press secretary in the early 1990s — and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Over the years they contacted others as well, including Sen. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
Advocacy from an influential senator seemed to shake something loose with the Army.
On July 27, an official with the Army’s Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, formerly in Alexandria, Va., responded to an inquiry from Nelson’s office. To address concerns, Lt. Col. Michael J. Worth wrote that the Army would “convene a Casualty and Memorial Board of Officers to review the date of death.”
“While the information your constituent has presented to us is compelling, we will need time to review the case file and consult with the Families of the others aboard that flight and consider their opinions. As a result, our review may take several weeks or months.”
In an email to Drager sent the same day, Worth attached the letter he had sent to Nelson and said, “We are going to convene a Casualty and Memorial Affairs Board to review the matter. We are not promising to change the date, but we are considering this.”
The families waited for an outcome. When nothing happened and they tried to get answers from officials, they were met with only noncommittal replies and unreturned calls, they said.
Worth, now an Army colonel who no longer works in Casualty and Mortuary Affairs, said he could not comment publicly on the matter when contacted by Stars and Stripes.
But after a records search, officials from Army Human Resources Command say there’s no indication the matter was ever examined by a review board.
“Army Human Resources Command has no record that a Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Board of Officers ever convened to specifically address changing the date on the B-24J Liberator crew group interment marker,” Army HRC spokesman Bill Costello wrote in a May 7 email.
Family members can contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to seek changes to individual markers, he wrote, but changes to the group marker would be more difficult.
“Changing the date to an actual date of death is problematic given the uncertainty surrounding this incident,” Costello wrote. “Since no benefits or entitlements are affected, there is no governmental purpose for making a change.”
In a March letter to Drager, Army National Military Cemeteries Executive Director Patrick Hallinan cited legislation and policies requiring the cemetery to follow official death dates, and recommended a new route for families interested in changing the group marker to take.
“To further assist you with obtaining official documentation that reflects a date of death other than March 20, 1946 … I recommend you contact the Army Board for Correction of Military Records for an official change to the date of death finding,” Hallinan wrote.
Some relatives of the crew say that after previous experiences trying to follow approved channels, intervention by a powerful official might be needed to make the change happen.
“I believe all it would take is for one motivated individual to get off his or her comfortable seat and walk this through channels,” David Ward, nephew of 2nd Lt. George Ward, the bombardier on the flight, wrote in an email.
“This is Kafkaesque,” Deming said. “They’re just digging in their heels and will not budge. I do believe it’s a can of worms they’re afraid they’ll open” — with other family members potentially coming out of the woodwork to demand corrections military cemeteries — “and that’s why they won’t do it.”
One thing each crew relative who spoke to Stars and Stripes agreed on: At the 70th anniversary of the crash this summer, they want the plane crash date, not a paperwork date, reflected on stones at Arlington.
“Do we have to do civil disobedience and glue up a sign?” Deming said. “No, we’re not going to dishonor Arlington.”
A brother’s wish
The closest surviving family member to any of the crew said he wants to live to see the date on the monument corrected.
Elmer DeLucia stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and had been fighting his way across Europe for several months as the sight man on a 4.2-inch mortar crew when grim news arrived in a letter from his eldest brother.
Their middle brother, Staff Sgt. Anthony DeLucia, or “Bib” as the family called him, was missing in the Pacific. Along with the nine crew members of the B-24 bomber on which he served as flight engineer, Anthony DeLucia had not returned from the Aug. 31 mission. It was his 24th birthday.
When Elmer DeLucia returned home to Bradford, Penn., the following year — his chest covered with combat medals and Purple Hearts — he found a family struggling to endure the cost of the war. His eldest brother, Augustino, was injured and lost an eye in a bombing mission over Europe.
His father had suffered a stroke that the family believes was brought on by stress after learning Anthony was missing. DeLucia, who still lives in Bradford, weeps when he recalls his reunion with his formerly vigorous father, who for years would continue to hold out hope his son would be found alive on an island in the Pacific.
“He’d say, “Bib’s a strong swimmer, and I think he’s out there,’” and for a time refused to accept a death benefit from the Army, Elmer DeLucia recalls.
Only on his deathbed in 1954 did the father acknowledge the reality of his son’s death.
“He said, ‘I’ll be seeing Bib soon,’” DeLucia said.
Elmer DeLucia says it comforts him that Anthony DeLucia’s remains are home in Bradford, with a correct date on the marker to boot. But part of his brother’s body is likely buried with the comingled remains at Arlington, he said.
DeLucia, who works a weekly shift as a greeter at Walmart simply for the chance to chat with customers — most of whom he seems to know — has a relentlessly sunny personality. But the date dispute at Arlington reduced him to sputtering anger.
“What are they doing down there? I can’t believe they made a mistake like that — how could they do that?” he said. “I want them to fix it. Just fix it right now.”