WASHINGTON D.C. –
On Halloween 2023, when many families worldwide are making lasting memories, two families with a unique bond nearly 80 years in the making came together on the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery to lay their loved ones to rest in a double funeral.
“2nd. Lt. Pile and TSgt Triplett flew together, died together, and now their families have chosen to have them buried side-by-side, at Arlington,” said Dr. Nicole Eilers, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency historical analyst for both cases. “I am honored that I get to represent the many people behind the scenes that have been working for over a decade to bring these two men home.”
During World War II, Tech Sgt. James Triplett was serving as a radio operator aboard a B-24H Liberator bomber during a large mission to bomb the industrial city Kassel in northern Hesse, Germany. 2nd Lt. Porter M. Pile, 24, of Harlingen, Texas, served as the navigator on the Sept. 27 mission. While in flight, the aircraft encountered heavy resistance from enemy ground and air forces, resulting in the rapid loss of 25 Liberators, including Triplett’s and Pile’s. Several of the crew aboard were able to bail out, and witnesses who survived did not report seeing him escape the aircraft. Six of the nine crew members were killed while the others were taken captive by German forces. Triplett’s and Pile’s bodies were not recovered following the war.
It was a normal fall day for a Triplett’s family in Oregon in 1944. In a quiet corner of their house, high up on a shelf in the pantry, sits a small and unassuming piece of the family’s history. It will go on to serve as both a reminder of loss and a beacon of hope for future generations. The heirloom remained untouched and unopened for over 30 years: A plain, wooden box.
“The only time I remember him as my uncle was when I was three,” said Tom Triplett, nephew of James. “What is clear is my memories of [my family] their longing to see him again.”
Tom grew up in Portland, Oregon with very little memory of his uncle. He would often hear stories from his father and grandparents but mostly remembers the pain and loss his family endured after his uncle’s death.
“[My grandmother] believed he would walk through the door until the day she died,” said Tom. “The crew members who survived were held as prisoners, which fueled her hope.”
In 1944, before even learning of his disappearance, James’ younger brother Bill had put together a box containing small things such as chocolates, cigarettes, and coffee, which he thought were in short supply. He labelled the box, took it to the post office, and sent it to England with hopes that his brother would receive it in time for Christmas.
One day later, the doorbell rang in Bill’s house. His wife, Eileen, answered the door to find a man holding that same wooden box.
“It had been sent back labelled ‘addressee unknown,” said Tom. “That was the very first indication that he was missing.”
In March 2007, a team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) met a local historian in regard to the Kassel mission. The historian took the team to a wooded area of Richelsdorf to show them what he believed was the crash site of the B-24 Liberator that James was assigned to. Two years later, in 2009, investigators returned again, this time to a more specific location where it was believed that the aircraft had crashed. The team examined the site and a visual reconnaissance of the area revealed parachute fabric, Plexiglas, clothing fabric, and other miscellaneous aircraft wreckage. The team recommended the site for archeological excavation.
Three DPAA recovery teams performed excavation operations at the crash site in 2015 and 2016. During this dig, the recovery team found an aircraft data plate with a number that correlated to the tail number of James’ aircraft. The team reached the end of its scheduled excavation period before it could completely process the site. Therefore, material evidence was transferred to the DPAA lab and additional work at the site was recommended.
A second DPAA recovery team continued the excavation in August 2015 and discovered an identification tag for one of the crew members aboard James’ aircraft. The team also recovered potential osseous material and other material evidence, which were transferred to the DPAA lab.
Finally, a third DPAA recovery team returned in April 2016 and completed excavation of the site. Evidence from this excavation were transferred to and accessioned into the DPAA lab in Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, where it underwent scientific analysis.
“[DPAA] started telling us things in 2015,” said Tom. “They told us they thought they found something.”
In 2017, Tom decided to provide a DNA sample to DPAA in hopes that his uncle could be identified. He also began communication with the Pile’s family, who also decided to give DNA samples.
Finally, after 79 years of waiting, both families had their answers. They were notified in 2017 that their loved ones had been identified. Due to the fact that they served on the same crew and were recovered together, the two families decided to hold a double funeral and honor both lives at once.
Tech Sgt. Triplett and 2nd Lt. Pile were given a proper funeral with full military honors and laid to rest alongside each other in Arlington National Cemetery on October 31, 2023.
“It was a wonderful service,” said Tom. “It brings a sense of closure.”