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News & Stories
News | Sept. 22, 2023

Daughter thanks DPAA Researcher for bringing MIA father home 79 years later

By Sgt. Ashleigh Maxwell

It’s the Winter of 1944. A new mother is alone in a hospital room where she has just given birth to her first child, a daughter named Suzanne. Her husband, an officer in the United States Army Air Force, is deployed in England, fighting in the second world war. As she holds her daughter, she is unaware that less than a month later she will receive a telegram that will change her life forever. This day will become the happiest and most tragic day of her life.

 2nd Lieutenant James Litherland III was serving as the co-pilot aboard a B17F aircraft during World War II in 1944. Along with nine other crew members, he was dispatched from Molesworth, England to engage in a bombing raid on a German V-2 rocket site in France. During the mission, the aircraft was struck by enemy fire and crashed near the city of Le Translay, France. Three of the airmen parachuted successfully while the other seven crew members, including Litherland, were still on board. After multiple recovery attempts, he was declared non-recoverable in December 1950.

            “I can’t tell you a lot about him,” said Suzanne Walker, daughter of Litherland. “Not as much as I wish I could because they’re all stories.”

Walker was born on February 28, 1944, the day her father’s aircraft was shot down. Her mother and father were married in April 1943, shortly after Litherland commissioned. They spent a short seven months together before he was deployed to England. Walker’s mother was contacted via telegram on March 5, 1944, and informed of her husband’s death.

           “My mother was a strong, determined woman,” Walker said. “But I know she grieved heavily.”

 After the crash, Walker’s mother stayed in contact with the three airmen who parachuted out of the aircraft. She spoke of Litherland often in hopes of keeping his memory alive for their daughter.

While growing up, Walker heard many stories about her father. She recalled stories that he was very much an outdoorsman and a great fisherman. Litherland even had his pilot’s license before joining the U.S. Army Air Forces. During his service, he received multiple awards and decorations including the Purple Heart posthumously. Walker remained close to her father’s side of the family and frequently visited with her grandmother.

            “I played under an oil painting of [Litherland] in [my grandmother’s] living room,” said Walker. “No one ever forgot.”

In September 2017, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) investigation team travelled to France in an attempt to locate Litherland’s crash site. The team contacted the village’s mayor to obtain official records of the crash and spoke with two French researchers who had information gathered by eyewitnesses. The researchers led the team to the site where they discovered multiple pieces of a B-17 cockpit including a parking brake knob, a data plate from a solenoid valve, and other smaller items. Based on the evidence and historical documents collected, the team recommended the site for excavation.

            “We did a metal detector survey,” said Dr. Donna Knaff, a WWII researcher who worked on Litherland’s case. “We located a number of things that said, ‘absolutely there’s a crash here’”.

In 2018, a DPAA recovery team excavated the site and discovered multiple pieces of material evidence and possible osseous materials. The materials were transported to the DPAA lab for forensic analysis. Once they were examined and it was clear they could possibly belong to Litherland, DPAA reached out to Walker to obtain a DNA sample. Walker shared that she was unaware anyone was still looking for her father and was shocked to receive a phone call.

            “The phone rang in our house … someone asked to speak to Suzanne Litherland,” said Walker. “I haven’t been Suzanne Litherland since 1947.”

After sending in the DNA sample, Walker received a packet full of information on her father’s case, along with an invitation to the 2018 DPAA Family Member Update (FMU) in Greensboro, North Carolina.

            “I had no idea what an [FMU] was about,” said Walker. “It was an extremely emotional experience.” 

At the FMU, Walker received an individual brief where she was able to sit face-to-face with DPAA personnel to discuss her father’s case. She received updates on the excavation site and information about the crash.

           “The first thing they pulled out was his I.D. tag,” Walker said. “That was a shock.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker didn’t receive another update on her father’s case until 2022 at a small meeting in Norfolk, Virginia. During the meeting, Walker was informed of an unknown grave site where her father could possibly be buried. Once DPAA received authorization to disinter the grave, the remains were transported to a lab in Offutt, Nebraska where the DNA was tested and matched the sample Walker provided.

After 79 years, Litherland was finally returned to his daughter and given a proper burial with full military honors. He was laid to rest alongside his family in Wildwood, Pennsylvania.

On Sept. 19, 2023, the week after her father’s funeral, Walker visited the DPAA building in Crystal City, Virginia. to personally thank Dr. Knaff and the team for bringing her father home.

       “I have not had this opportunity before in my 10 years of POW/MIA research,” said Knaff. “I’m honestly still processing it.

Walker continues to be a strong supporter of DPAA and its mission. DPAA remains committed to providing the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.

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Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency PAO
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