JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, HI, JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, HI –
On Feb. 22, 2020, I stood together with the rest of the recovery team inside the 20 meter by 16 meter excavation area southwest of Monywa, Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Deployed to the site for nearly 45 days, the team had missed birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events. On those occasions, we celebrated and encouraged one another; however, on this particular day, we stood solemnly united. From inside the hole, nearly 4m below ground level, all that could be seen was the POW/MIA Flag flying above attached to a makeshift flagpole and the banana trees in the surrounding fields. We briefly paused our work because 76 years earlier, the men we were searching for paid the ultimate sacrifice far from home on that day.
On Feb. 22, 1944, a flight of B-25s Mitchells, 490th Medium Bomber Squadron, known as the “Burma Bridge Busters,” conducted a low-level attack run along the Chindwin River near the town Monywa when the number two aircraft was struck by enemy ground fire, burst into flames and crashed on the opposite bank of the river in a dried stream bed between two fields. From the hole, I pointed north and described how the events may have unfolded, moving south along the river to where the aircraft was struck, and finally to where it crashed—noting that the remaining aircraft crews had risked their lives to fly at low altitude to protect anyone who may have survived the crash.
The team’s scientific recovery expert, Dr. Alexander Christensen, spoke briefly to remind us we were there not just to fulfill our Nation’s promise but the promise we made to each other, never to leave a fallen comrade. The promise is everlasting, and yet, the vestige of their sacrifice in places like Monywa is nearly complete; there is no plague, no memorial, no statue to honor these men. Dr. Christensen closed our small ceremony by speaking their names. “Today, we honor these men. Let us remember them and their loved ones whom they left behind.” After a moment of silence, we got back to work, moving and sifting through tons of earth to find these men and bring them home.
In retrospect, this mission was particularly unique personally and operationally. Before arriving in Myanmar, I found out that a member of the crew grew up only blocks away from my family’s home in Johnstown, Penn. My father heard the stories of the town’s heroes from WW2 and the Korean War, similar to this crew. To this day, it amazes me that our families lived only blocks apart, and then, 8,100 miles from Johnstown, in the middle of a banana field, 76 years later, I was actively attempting to recover this particular service member and his crew.
Operationally, soon after leaving the country, the Myanmar military used the recently declared COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst to regain governmental power and stage a coup. Unfortunately, the government has remained closed to DPAA, and it saddens me to think that little progress has been made. However, these circumstances highlight the complexity of DPAA’s global mission. While the DPAA is uniquely qualified and positioned to conduct this mission expertly, it often depends on external factors beyond its control. It often must operate within whatever complex conditions and environment exist. Yet, the agency must still communicate with families and bear the operational responsibility.
The reality of DPAA’s mission is that there are countless stories like mine. These examples embody all that DPAA does every year. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, Guardians, and civilian experts stand shoulder to shoulder, unified in our ethos, carrying the burden of our nation’s promise to “provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing.” The Agency’s mission lives on in each of us despite the increasingly complex operational environment.
(Editor’s Note: Names of heroes in this story are omitted to preserve the privacy for the family members.)