Memorial Day: Family of Lost WW II Flier Brings His Story to Life

27 May, 2018

Memorial Day in the United States is a time for remembering the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.

Families especially want to remember the stories of relatives or ancestors who served.

For one family, the discovery of a warplane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean during World War II brought welcome knowledge about one of their own, Tom Kelly.

A B-24 Liberator, the bomber Tom Kelly flew in WW II, flies over Washington, D.C. Kelly's plane was shot down and crashed in the Pacific Ocean near Papua New Guinea in 1944.
A B-24 Liberator, the bomber Tom Kelly flew in WW II, flies over Washington, D.C. Kelly's plane was shot down and crashed in the Pacific Ocean near Papua New Guinea in 1944.

Kelly grew up on a farm in Northern California in the 1930s. He dreamed of becoming a cowboy. But World War II changed his plans.

Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He became a 2nd lieutenant in the crew of a B-24 bomber.

But on March 11, 1944, Japanese anti-aircraft fire struck his plane, named Heaven Can Wait. It crashed in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

The discovery of the plane wreckage has brought a new understanding of Kelly, especially among his younger relatives.

Relatives recover memory of Kelly
Scott Althaus is one of those relatives.

"This discovery of where the wreck is, of seeing pictures and videos of the wreck on the floor of Hansa Bay. My goodness, it brings closure in a way we didn't expect," he said.

On Memorial Day five years ago, Althaus launched a project to learn everything he could about Tom Kelly. Soon the whole family was involved.

The family wanted to know about the young serviceman on the Heaven Can Wait.

Althaus discovered a lot about the young man.

"He was a very gregarious man. He kept up correspondence with I think 38 different people stateside while he was overseas. He was just well-liked," said Althaus.

One year ago, the Kelly family turned over what they learned to Project Recover. The group is a team of marine scientists, historians, archeologists, divers and others who are seeking military crash sites. They want to find the final resting place for those listed as Missing in Action.

Project Recover announced the discovery of the Heaven Can Wait wreckage before Memorial Day. It said the family's research greatly assisted the search for the plane. The team used stories from eyewitnesses, military reports, flight documents and personal writings of crew members.

Eric Terrill helped establish Project Recover. He also works at San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Terrill said it was the first time that the family of a missing in action (MIA) military member provided his group such support.

"The results from our efforts in Hansa Bay have stirred a mix of lasting emotions within our team and drives home the need to recognize the sacrifices that service members and their families make in protecting our freedoms," Terrill said.

The team will give its findings to the Department of Defense's POW/MIA Accounting Agency. That office seeks to recover the remains of those missing in action.

Althaus said, if his cousin's body is recovered, the family hopes for a burial in Kelly's hometown of Livermore, California.

And, he said, he hopes that, this Memorial Day, other families revisit the stories of their lost relatives who served in the U.S. armed forces.

I'm Mario Ritter.

The Associated Press reported this story for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

closure –n. a feeling that something has been completed or reached a conclusion

gregarious –adj. enjoying the company of other people

correspondence –n. the activity of writing letters, emails or other written communications to others

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