Thursday, October 22, 2009

The 65 Year Wait

The Press-Enterprise
Riverside, California

In September 1944, the family of Robert Stinson was notified that the 23-year-old San Bernardino airman was missing in combat after his B-24 bomber was shot down over the South Pacific during World War II.

Two years later, the military declared him dead. But his family never got the chance to lay him to rest.

That will change after his remains -- missing 60 years -- are flown to California on Oct. 28 and interred at Riverside National Cemetery two days later.

The Stinson family had despaired of ever hearing more about the fate of Robert, whom they called Bob. He was a sergeant in the Army Air Forces who joined the service in 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Stinson's tale got an unexpected new ending earlier this year when the family was contacted by the Department of Defense and told that his remains had been positively identified.

"I felt we had just won the Lotto," said Edward Stinson, 74, of San Bernardino, one of two surviving brothers out of six. "After 65 years you don't think you're going to get to bury your brother."

Robert Stinson attended San Bernardino High School for two years but wasn't very interested and played hooky often, Edward Stinson said. He was sent to stay with relatives in Hale, Mo., where he graduated from high school in 1938.

Until her death in 1964, their mother, Vella Stinson, wrote constantly to the military asking whether her son had been found. The B-24J Liberator bomber and its 11-member crew were shot down Sept. 1, 1944. It was on a bombing reconnaissance mission of enemy targets near the town of Koror in Palau, a small nation of islands 500 miles east of the Philippines, a news release from the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel office said.

Three crewmen parachuted down but were captured by the Japanese and later executed. The other eight, including Stinson, went down with the plane.

The aircraft remained missing until late 2004 when a group of Americans specializing in searching for lost World War II aircraft found it submerged near an island in Palau.

DNA samples were taken from the oldest brother, Dick Stinson, 87, of Yuba City, three years ago. A forensic team started piecing together the wreckage.

The plane's discovery was the culmination of a decade-long search by members of BentProp, a group of adventure-seekers who scuba dive, fly planes and share an interest in military history, said Reid Joyce, a retired research psychologist from Pennsylvania who is the Webmaster for the group's Web site.

Joyce was one of four divers who went into the murky water and found the plane in several pieces 40 feet to 70 feet deep.

As they dove down, they first saw a propeller sticking out of coral. As they went deeper, a fuselage and an entire wing appeared, Joyce said. Still undersea, one diver excitedly wrote one word on a slate near her wrist: "Jack." Jack Arnett had been the pilot of the plane they had found.

"There was no question in our minds it was a B-24," Joyce said. "If it was a B-24 it had to be this one. You could hear everyone shouting just about to Koror when we finally came up from that dive."

The plane was one of four B-24 bombers lost in the region, Joyce said. Members of BentProp, which began searching for boats and planes in 1993, already had located two of them, he said.

But the fate of the crew remained a mystery until the team found a clue while examining military photos. They discovered two frames of film taken by a plane on the same mission showing falling debris. They surmised that was the missing plane, Joyce said.

They projected a position over the sea and began asking locals if they had seen anything unusual. One fisherman told them he had seen something while diving but wasn't sure what it was.

"We went to that location and by golly, there it was," he said.

They notified the Defense Department, which sent a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Team to conduct an underwater investigation. Between 2005 and 2008, the team excavated the site on three six-week missions, the news release said.

They recovered human remains, machine guns with serial numbers matching those associated with the plane and identification for three crewmen. The federal agency began contacting the families earlier this year as they used dental records and DNA testing to identify the remains.

Stinson family members, who hope to tell Robert's story in a book, say they are grateful to have closure.

"We couldn't believe it," Alice Stinson, Edward's wife, said of the discovery. "We held each other and cried."

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