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WWII Bomber Crew Is Finally Buried

June 19, 2003|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Cousins Wayne Bosler III and Sandra Gilley of Kansas City, Mo., strolled along the Mall in the drizzle, but it wasn't the usual tourist attractions that brought them to Washington this week. They were here to say goodbye to their uncle, Sgt. Charles Bosler -- a World War II soldier missing for nearly 60 years -- and finally lay him to rest.

On Sept. 8, 1945, Bosler and seven other Army Air Forces servicemen left Australia aboard a B-25 bomber, bound for Biak Island, Indonesia. Their plane never arrived, and there was no clue to their whereabouts. The debris was not discovered until 1995; civil unrest in Indonesia hampered salvage efforts until 1999, when U.S. military helicopters began retrieving remains and personal items. With the help of DNA from members of their families, the victims were identified, their families contacted, and the bodies finally brought home.

On Wednesday, Bosler and Gilley joined the families of the other victims at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where the Army gave their loved ones a formal, final salute. And as the muted strains of taps echoed through the damp air, David Miller of Santa Monica could finally say goodbye to the father he does not remember.

Miller was just 2 years old when 1st Lt. Philip Miller, the B-25's pilot, took off on his final flight. His mother assumed the worst when the Army was unable to salvage any evidence from the disappearance, which was officially declared to be weather-related. The eight men were listed by a military review board as "presumed dead; body not recovered."

So they remained, lost for 50 years until a mining company helicopter pilot spotted aircraft wreckage on an Indonesian mountain.

Then, on Sept. 25, 2001, Miller's mother, Sarah Burch of Walla Walla, Wash., received a call: Her husband had been found.

"I was shocked," she said. "Really, I thought he had fallen into the ocean. I couldn't sleep."

Burch paged slowly through a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photos chronicling her husband's life and disappearance. She remembered him as an even-tempered man who "didn't argue, didn't fuss." Miller displayed his father's wings, recovered from the crash site, warped and twisted from the impact. He described the pages of "gruesome, gruesome" photographs of the remains scattered among the rocks.

The surprising discovery has brought bittersweet closure to the family, along with renewed sadness.

"It started the grieving process all over again," said Mary Lue Hart of Salem, Ore., one of Burch's daughters from her second marriage. Burch has survived two other husbands, both also bomber pilots.

But the nearly 60 years since her first husband disappeared doesn't dull the pain of Burch's loss.

"It's hard," she said, looking downward.

Miller was forced to revisit a tragedy that occurred when he was a toddler. "You've got to realize I'm the son of someone I never knew," he said. "I thought he'd never be found. To have it all happen like this is very strange."

As remarkable as the victims' recovery is to their families, the Army in fact locates and identifies with some frequency the remains of thousands of American soldiers lost in combat. Soldiers from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii undertake helicopter searches around the world 250 to 260 days a year, according to Shari Lawrence, the deputy public affairs officer for the Army's personnel command.

World War II casualties are "really so easy to recover," Lawrence said. "Besides the wind and nature, it looks pretty much like it did when it went down."

She said Wednesday's group burial was the third such Army service this year; she expects three more this summer, all of which will take place in a special group section of Arlington National Cemetery.

The B-25 crew's odyssey -- in miles and years -- ended as seven black limousines threaded their way past the legions of white tombstones. A horse-drawn caisson carrying the flag-draped casket containing the commingled remains of seven servicemen headed the procession; Sgt. Finn Buer was interred separately.

Loy Smith of Trinity, N.C., appreciated the ceremonial tribute to his brother, 1st Lt. Fred Smith. "This is the last time that we could send him off and pay our last respects to him," Smith said.

Smith and his three brothers all served in World War II. He remembers his brother as a "happy-go-lucky" baseball fan. "Nothing worried him," he said.

During the service in the chapel at nearby Ft. Myer, the bell tolled as the Rev. Robert Williams, an Army chaplain, read the eight names, which also included Tech. Sgt. Matthew F. Neary, Staff Sgt. Troy B. Hewett Jr., Staff Sgt. Veachel F. Straney and Sgt. Earl H. Spredemann.

Nearly 50 relatives and friends, some wiping away their tears, gathered around the two caskets.

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