ARLINGTON, Va. » Even for Arlington National Cemetery, Wednesday’s burial service was extraordinary: honoring the remains of nine World War II Army airmen shot down and killed after a successful bombing run in Papua New Guinea in 1943.
The remains, excavated from the crash site in 2001, were in a single casket because most of them could not be conclusively linked to any one airman, despite extensive testing by the Army.
It had been 68 years since Leonard Gionet’s father was shot down, and he did not expect Wednesday’s burial service to be especially emotional. After all, he was only 6 months old when his father died. But he found himself wiping tears from his eyes as he sat next to his 90-year-old mother, thinking about his childhood and how he had tried to piece together what his dad was like from family conversations.
"I had kind of buried it all. I was surprised by all the emotions that surfaced," he said after the ceremony.
The burial brings a close to the remarkable story of the Naughty but Nice, a B-17 Flying Fortress that was shot down in 1943 and earned its nickname from a painting of a scantily clad woman on its side. Nine of the 10 airmen on board were killed and buried in unmarked graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. The lone survivor, 1st Lt. Jose Holguin, was taken prisoner of war by the Japanese but made it his mission after the war to find his lost colleagues.
"I don’t want to call it survivor’s guilt. I would call it a survivor’s mission," said Holguin’s son, Curt Holguin, who attended Wednesday’s service. "He returned home and they didn’t. His mission became to get them home."
The elder Holguin traveled back to Papua New Guinea several times in the 1980s and found parts of the plane. In 1985 the Army exhumed remains that had been buried as "unknown" at Punchbowl after they were recovered from Papua New Guinea after the war.
Tests done at the time positively identified remains from five of the nine who were killed: 2nd Lt. Herman H. Knott, 2nd Lt. Francis G. Peattie, Staff Sgt. Henry Garcia, Staff Sgt. Robert E. Griebel and Staff Sgt. Pace P. Payne.
The Army did further excavations near the crash site in 2001 and found additional human remains. More advanced tests were done but did not conclusively link those remains to any of the remaining four from the Naughty but Nice: Tech Sgt. Robert L. Christopherson, Tech Sgt. Leonard A. Gionet, 1st Lt. William Sarsfield and 2nd Lt. Charles E. Trimingham.
But the Army is confident that the remains belong to the nine dead airmen, in part based on where they were found and other tests that were done.
Those remains were buried Wednesday in a single casket at Arlington, during a service with full military honors. Relatives of the four who had not previously been identified were presented with American flags.
"After nearly 70 years these men haven’t been forgotten, and their mission is getting its due respect," said L. Edward Johnson of Pebble Beach, Calif., who accepted the flag for his family on behalf of his uncle, co-pilot Trimingham.
Gionet, 68, who lives in Portland, Ore., said it was about a year ago that he learned his father’s remains had been recovered. Somewhat amazingly, he said he received a knock on the door from an Army colonel and sergeant just after he had finished watching a movie called "The Messenger," whose main character is an officer assigned to notify family members when their loved ones have been killed in action.
The news came as a shock: Gionet said he had been unaware of the excavations that had recovered his father’s remains.
"I think it’s something where I’ll be able to close that chapter of my life," Gionet said of the ceremony.
Gionet’s mother, Della Edwards, who became a widow at age 22 when the elder Gionet was shot down, traveled from Sacramento, Calif., for the ceremony.
She recalled the years when she held hope after her husband was declared missing that he was still alive, and remembered her husband as an eternal optimist.
"He changed me from being a pessimist to an optimist. By the time he left (for the Pacific theater), he had convinced me that nothing bad would happen to him," Edwards said. "He told me, ‘A bad penny always comes back.’"
At the end of World War II, the U.S. government was unable to recover and identify about 79,000 Americans. More than 73,000 remain unaccounted for.