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News & Stories
News | May 28, 2024

WWII Veteran attends Family Member Update in Billings, MT

By Staff Sgt Blake Gonzalez

Of the 81 POW/MIA family members present at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s (DPAA) Family Member Update (FMU) in Billings, Montana, none turned more heads than William Sivelle, a 98-year-old World War II veteran, who attended the event with his wife, Leigh, May 18, 2024.

After more than 80 years since joining the U.S. Navy Reserves in 1944, Sivelle attended his first FMU with one goal, to speak face-to-face with service casualty officers, historians, and scientific recovery experts about his cousin, U.S. Army Air Forces Pfc. Richard J. Sivell, a World War II POW who never returned home from the conflict. Richard was declared a casualty of war on August 8, 1942, just two years before Sivelle enlisted. He’s been waiting for his cousin to return home ever since.

“We grew up together,” said Sivelle. “My family was in a little town called Henry, Illinois. My dad was born and raised there. We went to Henry quite often, particularly during apple season. Richard’s family had a pretty good-sized apple orchard, and we’d go in and mix cider and pick apples. He enlisted in 1939.” 

In 1944, Sivelle joined the U.S. Navy Reserves at age 18. Barely a week out of high school, he travelled to the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California, and later became an Aviation Machinist's Mate 3rd Class. A few months after graduating basic training, he was assigned to the Omaha-class light cruiser USS Detroit (CL-8), which survived the attacks at Pearl Harbor. Detroit would go on to support some of the most famous operations of the Pacific War. It served as a flagship for the 5th fleet during the Battle of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa. The vessel also witnessed the formal Japanese surrender to U.S. forces.

“We were in Iwo Jima until the end of February 1945, that’s where I spent my 19th birthday,” said Sivelle. “We went back to Ulithi, which was our main port, and stayed in and around that area until April Fool’s Day, which was the Battle of Okinawa. When we received word that the Japanese were surrendering, we were ordered into Tokyo Bay. We were next to the USS Missouri during the ceremonies.”
Upon returning from the war, Sivelle learned that Richard had been taken prisoner by Japanese forces in the Philippines, not far from the ports the Detroit had docked. It took much longer to find out that Richard tragically passed away from illness in a POW camp. Like many of the Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen captured at the time, Sivelle feared Richard was a victim of the Bataan Death March, a forced 65-mile hike which claimed the lives of thousands of POWs. 

“Richard was already gone in 1942, but I didn’t know that at the time,” said Sivelle. “I had heard he had been in Luzon. I heard and read that he was in the hospital in Manila where he died of dysentery, but that’s where it ends. He was put into a communal grave.” 

Decades later, still hoping that Richard could be accounted for, Sivelle was given new hope from an unlikely source: his son, Charles. 

“Charles is a genealogist,” said Sivelle. “Years ago, he volunteered for some ancestry blood testing around Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Shortly thereafter, he got a call asking about Richard. He didn’t know a thing about Richard. He told them about me and how I could probably answer whatever questions they had. He did probably more research than anybody else in the world after he was contacted by the folks at Offutt.” 

It was also through Charles that Sivelle and Leigh learned about the FMU. 

“I got a letter in the mail from Charles,” said Sivelle. “He got one too. He lives just 15 miles from us in Polson. I decided to follow through and find out as much as I could.”

Sivelle was one of 65 first-time FMU attendees, all of whom received formal presentations on current DPAA operations, while getting the opportunity to ask questions and learn more about the agency. Next to the one-on-one briefing Sivelle received on Richard’s case, he was also given the opportunity to share his story during a remembrance ceremony. Sivelle used the opportunity not only to spread the word about Richard, but to honor the legacy of service that much of his family shares. 

“My dad served in the U.S. Navy,” said Sivelle. “My brother, two years younger than I, served in the U.S. Navy on a destroyer, and my kid brother, five years younger than me, served as an aerial photographer. Quite the family.”

Sivelle’s story is one that many in attendance empathized with, for each family member present represented a loss from either World War II, the Vietnam War, or the Korean War. 

“Eight decades is a long time to grieve and a long time to wait for answers,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Matt Brannen, DPAA deputy director for operations. “We really do view this mission as a scared obligation and a moral imperative. I have a hard time describing what it means to me as a service member to give back to these men and woman who paid the last measure of devotion in service to their country. This really is about keeping the nation’s promise to never leave a service member behind.”

Grateful for the assistance, Sivelle continues to search for Richard. 

“All his family are gone,” said Sivelle. “I hope and pray that I’ll get a perfect identification. That’s my goal. These guys have done a hell of a job.”

Of the personnel still unaccounted for, there are approximately 72,000 from World War II, 1,500 from the Vietnam War, 7,500 from the Korean War, and 126 from the Cold War. Approximately 39,000 are estimated to be recoverable. Just as Sivelle has done for the past 80 years, DPAA vows to never leave a man behind. 

“We are here to provide answers,” said Brannen. “In my 26 years of service, this has been one of the most noble and honorable missions that I’ve been a part of. Every day, our personnel put their hearts and souls into this mission. With passion, vigor and enthusiasm, they work to account for as many as we can.”

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Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency PAO
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2300 Defense Pentagon
Attn: Outreach and Communications
Washington, D.C. 20301-2300