On Jan. 21, 1944, as World War II wore on in the South Pacific, Capt. David C. Bryant Jr. took off from a U.S. Army Air Forces base in Port Moresby, New Guinea, for what was supposed to be a routine flight over friendly territory.
Bryant, 24, was piloting a B-25 Mitchell twin-engine bomber with 11 other men aboard for an “administrative” flight ferrying the passengers over the mountains to pick up another plane at an airstrip 100 miles away.
Until that day, Bryant had led a charmed life, starting out as a boy working in mines in Montana and, later, the Navajo Nation. He was a bright young man, and won a scholarship to UC Berkeley, where he graduated in 1941. He enlisted as a private in November of that year – just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Bryant rose through the ranks and eventually completed his required 32 missions, allowing him to return home from the war. But a “Dear John” letter from his intended convinced him to stay in the South Pacific, where his luck finally ran out.
Bryant’s plane and passengers disappeared that day after passing over the towering Owen Stanley mountain range. Rescue missions over the next three days failed to find the airmen or the plane. He was declared dead April 10, 1945, and President Harry S. Truman signed a certificate “in grateful memory” of his sacrifice.
But the government never stopped looking for him.
Today, more than 71 years after his plane disappeared, Bryant’s family still receives updates about efforts to find him, part of a massive federal effort to locate, identify and recover 83,126 Americans still considered missing in action from conflicts worldwide since World War II.
As the nation marks Memorial Day to honor its war dead with parades, barbecues and solemn graveside services, families of those still missing say the government’s efforts are a reminder of the sacrifices so many have made.
“It’s absolutely phenomenal that they’re still looking,” Bryant’s niece, Jacqueline Kurtz-Beggs, said last week in her Castro Valley home, where she keeps the treasures of her missing uncle’s life: his wings, the Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals he earned, and the American flag that was given to his mother decades ago in his honor.
“The fact that they’re doing this for World War II people and others, I think people would just be amazed,” said Kurtz-Beggs, 74, as she showed off a photo of Bryant and his crew posing in front of a B-25 with the nickname “Werewolf” painted on the side.
The ongoing effort to find out what happened to tens of thousands of American warriors is the task of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which was established in January. The Defense Department has conducted such efforts for decades, but created the new $110 million-a-year agency to oversee the search for MIAs from conflicts since World War II, including the Cold War.
“This is something we feel very strongly about,” said Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, who said Defense Department efforts have accounted for more than 400 previously missing service members in the past five years.
“Families are the most important part of this,” she said. “They’re the ones that are still here, alive and waiting for answers for their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.
“It’s the families who we want to return these loved ones to.”
As part of that mission, the agency holds meetings nationwide seven times a year to update families on individual cases, and twice a year in Washington, D.C., for larger briefings.
The number of families participating has grown steadily over the years, increasing from 187 people in 1997 to 1,290 last year. The first “family member update” this year was Feb. 21 in Sacramento at Crowne Plaza Sacramento Northeast Hotel, where more than 250 people gathered to hear updates on accounting for MIAs and receive copies of their loved ones’ military files.
“They show you what they’ve been doing,” said Kurtz-Beggs, who traveled from Castro Valley for the session. “This last one was very informative because they gave us a historian, and the historian had really clear, present-day photos of the topography of where his plane might have gone down, where they suspect it might have gone down, and what they’ve been doing in that particular area.”
Her uncle’s files spell out the various efforts that were made to find Bryant and his crew and passengers. After the initial searches in 1944, the American Graves Registration Service conducted another search in 1948 but found nothing.
Bryant’s dental records and other information were compared with skeletal remains classified as “unknown” without any matches.
But the efforts did not stop, even after he was declared dead.
Defense Department teams searched for possible crash sites in 2000, 2003 and 2010, and also took DNA samples from Kurtz-Beggs and other family members to use if any remains are found in the future.
Lt. Col. Morgan said the agency uses numerous methods of detective work to figure out where remains might be, comparing battlefield accounts with those of a service member’s comrade “who thinks he went forward and then went 100 yards off to the right.”
This month alone, the Defense Department has announced the identification of 14 MIAs from Korea, Vietnam and World War II, including last Monday’s announcement that DNA had helped identify Army Cpl. Francis D. Knoebel of La Crosse, Wis., who was reported missing Dec. 12, 1950, near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Knoebel’s remains were identified from among 25 boxes of remains turned over by the North Koreans in 1954.
At the time, the military was unable to identify remains from seven of the boxes and they were buried in Honolulu at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as the “Punchbowl” because of its shape.
But the remains were exhumed last year to let analysts use DNA testing and other technology to examine them again, and Knoebel was identified and buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday.
Some families realize there are long odds that their loved ones will ever be found, but still they are pleased at the efforts being made.
Robert Haberle, 69, of Sunnyvale assumed for years that there was little hope of his father’s remains ever being found. Lt. William Joseph Haberle was a radar operator on a B-29 bomber shot down by MiG fighter jets over North Korea in 1951. Haberle and the rest of the crew bailed out, but Haberle is believed to have gone down over a bay and was never found.
“Water landings make it very difficult to recover anything,” Robert Haberle said. “And because we are not on friendly terms with North Korea, we can’t go back and look.”
Haberle was 6 and the eldest of four children when his father disappeared, and he later was drafted into the Army in 1967 and fought during the Tet offensive in Vietnam.
“So I know what it’s like to be committed in harm’s way, and it’s not very pretty,” Haberle said, adding that his experience left him questioning the government’s ability to get things done.
But he has no issues with the Defense Department’s ongoing efforts to finds MIAs or the briefing he and his sister received in February at the update meeting in Sacramento. There, he learned that his family was eligible to hold a funeral for Lt. Haberle with full military honors at any cemetery of their choosing, including Arlington.
In Haberle’s case, the federal government’s efforts included taking his DNA and sending a team to Minnesota to retrieve samples from his father’s sister for comparison if remains are ever found that might be his father.
“That’s really an impressive thing,” Haberle said. “I think it’s a way to honor his memory.
“When I was in combat, it was certainly clear to me that no one really cared much about what we were doing over there, and if you got killed that’s your tough luck, you just disappeared into eternity. … But the Defense Department’s efforts to recover these missing is really admirable.”