NASHVILLE, Tenn. >> For 73 years, the remains of Nashville World War II Navy pilot Harold DeMoss have been difficult to reach — but not hard to find.
In the waning months of the war, DeMoss’s plane crashed into a remote outcrop on Oahu during a night-flight training mission on July 23, 1945.
A search party reached the crash site three days later, burying what they could find. Weeks later, another group returned, and a Navy lieutenant recited the “Lord’s Prayer” over the shallow grave of the 21-year-old Nashville farmer’s son.
But the men couldn’t take DeMoss’s remains back with them. It was just weeks from the Japanese surrender. Their efforts were direly needed elsewhere.
DeMoss’ parents were told they would have to wait to get their son home.
For the next seven decades — through the administrations of 13 U.S. presidents, the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars and the 9-11 attacks — the DeMoss family has waited.
In 1968, when DeMoss’ mother, Zora, asked the military for an escort to the crash site, she was politely rejected in a letter that instead offered a commemorative lithograph of Harold’s name on a wall of remembrance in Hawaii.
Consumed by loss and longing, she took that rejection hard, pouring grief into poems. “It would be sad but I’d like to see/ The grave where dear Harold lies/ And cover it with flowers/ Beneath the Hawaiian skies.”
DeMoss’ mother and his father have long since passed away.
The only surviving family member who remembers Harold is his younger brother, Jim, who — at 85 years old — lost hope years ago that his brother would ever be laid to rest in the family’s cemetery in west Nashville. Still, there is stretch of grass and clover under the shade of two red cedar trees set aside for Harold. The joint headstone of his mother and father sits beside it.
Then, on May 11, came the unexpected news.
Pentagon officials said they identified Harold’s remains on the island.
They found his gold, engraved wedding band.
He will be coming home, they promised. In two to three months.
“I’d given up,” Jim DeMoss said. “I didn’t believe we’d ever get him back. They had him in their hands two days after the crash and they didn’t see fit to get him back to us. I figured nobody cared much for an old hillbilly who got killed in the war.”
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war. By its end, there were approximately 79,000 unaccounted for.
Today, more than 72,000 Americans who served in WWII still remain unaccounted for — including 1,221 from Tennessee.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the arm of the Pentagon responsible for finding and returning the nation’s war dead, faced intense criticism for clearing so few cases.
Three years ago it underwent a top-to-bottom reorganization after an internal investigation revealed staff members enjoyed “military tourism” trips to Europe, spending extravagantly on luxury hotels and lavish meals even as the agency was misidentifying many of the remains of recovered soldiers. The agency was dissolved; its leader demoted; and it was merged into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
With an annual budget of $130 million, the agency has identified the remains of about only 100 veterans each year. In 2017, that figure rose to 201.
The agency faces steep challenges in recovering many of those lost in the nation’s wars, men and women who were buried as unknowns, buried at sea or interred on foreign soil where access is sometimes limited. Others are classified as missing in action or lost at sea.
Harold DeMoss, however, fits none of those categories.
His remains lie fewer than 40 miles from the agency’s headquarters in Honolulu.
The two search parties in the 1940s that found him after the crash transmitted the location to superiors in the Navy.
In the ensuing years, the charts and maps documenting the location were lost.
A decade ago, Judy DeMoss Ivey, Jim’s daughter, inherited the family’s stack of telegrams and letters to government officials pleading for action.
By 2011, Ivey was thoroughly disgusted at the slow response from her repeated calls, emails and letters to Department of Defense officials and congressional representatives.
“One office offered to get us a flag,” she said. “I remember thinking we don’t want the friggin’ flag. That’s not what we’re after.”
She turned to the Hawaii Aviation Preservation Society, a volunteer historical group.
They looked over the accident reports Ivey had found, pinpointed a likely search area and promised Ivey they would find DeMoss’s remains.
The crash site is remote, separated from the nearest road by at least 7 miles of thick vegetation and mud covering the rugged and steep terrain, which is home to wild pigs. In their ninth attempt, the volunteers stumbled upon a plane tire and scraps of metal. They believed it belonged to DeMoss’ plane.
The volunteers sent the coordinates of their discovery to military officials immediately.
Department of Defense officials have had those exact coordinates for seven years.
In 2013, the Department of Defense contacted Ivey.
Officials informed the family that before the military could retrieve DeMoss’ remains an environmental impact study would have to be done.
The study would conclude in December 2014, the department told the family.
The family heard nothing further for two years. The family turned to Sen. Bob Corker and state Rep. Courtney Rogers, who made queries on their behalf.
The two lawmakers received letters within days of each other in January 2015.
The environmental impact study would be complete two months later in March, according to a letter to Rogers from Michael Fowler, director of external affairs for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
A second letter to Corker from Michael Franklin, another director for the same agency, said the study would take another 16 months to complete.
In August 2015, an investigation by The Tennessean explored the series of delays, missteps and conflicting information given to the family by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Within weeks, military press and other media outlets wrote their own stories.
U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper took the report to military officials, questioning the delays.
Faced with such public scrutiny, the agency set a date for retrieving the remains from the crash site.
In August 2016, military personnel were lowered to the site by helicopters, where they excavated and retrieved what they could find. The materials were sent to a laboratory in Honolulu for identification.
After so many years, a positive identification remained elusive. Forensic analysts found small fragments believed to be bone, according to a medical examiner’s report dated May 9. The fragments suggested there was only one individual represented.
No DNA analysis was possible.
“It is my opinion, based on the histology and circumstances of recovery, that the sample examined was taken from a fragment of bone, that the probability that the sample is non-human bone is extremely low, and considering it to be non-human would be unreasonable,” the medical examiner’s report said.
“Accordingly, the osseous material recovered in the Ko’olau Mountains, Island of Oaha, Hawaii…represent human remains originating from Ensign DeMoss.”
Two items were found: a U.S. Navy Pilot Wings insignia consistent with those issued during WWII. And a gold metal wedding ring, size 9, with a “delicate pattern along both edges.”
It was DeMoss’. He had a brief marriage during the war. Ivey said the family never kept in touch with his wife but learned that she died long ago.
Ivey was in east Tennessee when her cellphone rang with the news.
She immediately called her father.
“She said, you better sit down,” Jim DeMoss said. “She said I got some good news. I just said, ‘Well. I didn’t think it would ever happen.’”
Jim DeMoss is slow to share memories of his brother. Harold has been long gone, he said. He doesn’t think anyone would be interested in stories about his big brother.
The pair grew up rambling across acres of land in west Nashville, where generations of the DeMoss family have passed down family farms.
“We were pretty close,” he said. “Just eight years apart. Eight years in the country is different than city life.”
Jim and Harold would ride wild horses and wander across “great big fields and we were just talking, just him and me.”
“He had a spotted pony, a big pony, and one day he told me to get the gate open. I was barefoot and he shot me in the foot with a BB gun. He thought it was funny. He was just a regular big brother. He was my big brother.”
Asked what he would like people to know about Harold, Jim said only “the fact that he flew a plane in World War II. That’s the most important thing. His horse’s name was Dick Tracy. That horse was about half wild, but I don’t think that people care much which horse he rode. He did good in school. I don’t know of anything he liked to do more than fly a plane. Tell them that.”
The Department of Defense, which did not respond to repeated requests to comment about the recovery of DeMoss, promised the family Harold will be flown to Nashville in two to three months. They offered a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Ivey said. She declined, asking that he be buried with full honors in the family’s private cemetery.
The family cemetery in Nashville sits on land originally granted to a DeMoss forebearer who served in the Revolutionary War. The cemetery is scattered with tombstones that commemorate the service of men in the family who have served in every major U.S. war since then.
Jim DeMoss never served. When he tried to enlist several years after his brother’s death, he was rejected as the sole surviving son.
“I’d be glad to have him and drive by. I can come by and maybe put flowers on his grave,” Jim DeMoss said.
“We never had anywhere to go. That’s the hardest part. It was hard for my mom. She didn’t have anyplace to go.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com