A Missing Plane Found Half a Century Later
Editor's Note: Six servicemen disappeared during World War II when their twin-engine plane failed to return to an air base near Seattle. Now, after DNA testing of remains found in the freezing heights of Mount Baker in Washington, these servicemen finally have come home.
Commander Ralph Beacham pulled his PV-1 Vega Ventura onto the runway. He
gunned his 2,000-horsepower engines.
It was 1:22 p.m. on Aug. 29, 1943. The sky -- and oblivion -- beckoned.
There were six on board for what the official report would call "a routine instrument training flight.'' Beacham and his co-pilot, Ensign Charles E. Nestor. Machinist mates Carl Brown and Livio DeMarco. Ordnance man Robert W. Gray. Radio man Peter LaValle.
The weather was fine at Whidbey Naval Air Base, midway between Seattle and the Canadian border. But to the east, in the mountains, conditions were not so good.
Beacham was a seasoned pilot, with five years of experience. This crew was ticketed overseas, to join the war against Japan; their squadron, VP-146, would fight valiantly in the Southwest Pacific, from Tarawa to the Philippines.
The PV-1, with a range of 1,350 miles, remained in contact with its base for two hours, until 3:22 p.m. And then to all appearances PV-1 No. 34637 disappeared from the face of the Earth.
All planes were recalled to base. They searched until darkness fell and again the next day.
Eventually, they gave up. The sad news was relayed to families in New York, California, Indiana, South Dakota, Oregon, Florida: The plane was presumed lost at sea, the men missing but presumed drowned.
And that is how they remained, for 51 years.
The war was won, the boys came home, America was launched as a colossus. The Iron Curtain went up, and then came down. Six families mourned absent sons, placing flowers at monuments that marked no graves.
In October 1994, Charles Eaton, a 55-year-old welder from Bellingham, Washington was hiking on Mount Baker, a dormant, ice-capped volcano 50 miles northeast of Whidbey Island.
At 7,500 feet, Eaton fell upon a jumble of blackened metal, human bones, engine parts, live ammunition, machine guns, life rafts and carbon dioxide bottles -- the detritus of PV-1 No. 34637.
"The plane crashed into the glacier,'' Eaton said. And much of it remains there, imbedded in the ice.
Three recovery missions came away with dog tags, a sailor's cap (if you looked hard, you could see the name "LaValle'') and 350 bone fragments.
Had those bones been found 10 years before, there would have been no way to identify them. But now, scientists had the tools.
At the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Rockville, Maryland, they extracted genetic material from six left hip bones. Blood testing kits were dispatched to the families.
Matches were made. And in 1996, 53 years after their final flight, remains of these six men came home to stay.
A tribute was held at Arlington National Cemetery, where those bones that could not be matched were buried in a single grave. Relatives of the dead crewmen met, and came to know each other. Livio DeMarco's brother and sister-in-law, Nello and Amelia, still exchange phone calls, letters and cards with Santa Brooks, sister of Peter Lavalle.
"My wife sometimes calls her at the drop of a hat. They talk quite a while, mostly about what's new with our families,'' says Nello.
They have something crucial in common. Many years ago, they lost their brothers, and now they have them back.
The years have not diminished the need to have the boys -- and they will always be boys -- close at hand. Now, the families know what happened; now, they know that when they place flowers on graves on Memorial Day, their loved ones rest below.
For these six families, World War II has only
recently come to an end.
Part of the wreckage of the aircraft.
`You always have hope'
SARASOTA, Fla. -- She was a newlywed, married just eight months, when Ruth Nestor's parents came out to Whidbey Island on a visit from Omaha. They planned to meet Charles at the Officer's Club for dinner that night.
But when they got to the base, something clearly was wrong. They were turned away, sent home without explanation, to wonder and to worry.
``They didn't say the plane was missing or anything,'' she recalls now. ``They just said someone would call me later.''
Much later, an officer was dispatched to her home with the news, and her life turned upside down.
Ruth's parents packed up her belongings and took her home to Nebraska. She found work. After the war, she ran into an old high school sweetheart.
They married, and the widow Ruth Nestor again became a bride, Ruth Kildahl. Charles' parents stayed in touch and became like an aunt and uncle to Ruth and Robert's four children.
``You always have hope...,'' she says. ``You have hope. You wonder.''
News of the plane wreckage came many, many years later, in a telephone call to Sarasota.
Her first husband's dog tags were among items found. His older brother, Gunner, contributed the blood sample for the DNA test that showed for certain Charles E. Nestor died in his plane.
Ruth didn't share that identification with friends in Florida, who didn't even know her first husband. Instead, she went quietly -- without fanfare or media attention -- to the burial service at Arlington.
``It was nice to know what happened,'' she says. ``But it was, what, 53 years? I mean, it's hard to describe.''
``It gave me comfort to finally know. But, I mean, the years do a lot of healing.''
-- by Lisa Holewa, Associated Press Writer
`She carried this love ... all those years'
CORNELIUS, Ore. -- Virginia Beacham was the rock.
From the time Navy officers knocked on her door in 1943 with news her husband's bomber had vanished, she held her family together, waited, hoped.
She always said he'd come back.
He did, more than five decades later, his remains recovered from the bomber's wreckage found scattered across a steep ravine.
``It was as if she said to herself, 'Now I can die in peace,''' says son Ralph. ``She finally relaxed.''
Mrs. Beacham, 85, has since moved into a nursing home, her lucidity ebbing.
She was seven months pregnant when Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Beacham took off on a routine training mission and never came back. She raised their two boys alone, clinging to the chance that the Annapolis graduate known for his flying skills and his smarts had survived.
``She never did remarry,'' says Ralph, 58. ``She carried this love around for all those years.''
Beacham will visit his father's grave in Annapolis this summer. Memorial Day will be dedicated to his wife, who died of cancer the year his father's remains were found.
He and his son Bryan, 28, plan to hike to the crash site during a drought year, when the glacier melts enough to allow an approach. They didn't make it on two prior attempts.
``We'll get there one of these years,'' he says.
Charles Eaton, the hiker who first stumbled across the wreckage, has already promised to be their guide.
-- by Lauren Dodge, Associated Press Writer
`What a struggle they must have had'
GEDDES, S.D. -- When Helen McConnell visits the rural cemetery where her brother Robert is buried, she takes comfort in knowing that he is part of this close-knit community. And she continues to marvel at how a South Dakota farm boy could have made such a journey.
Shortly after he turned 21, Robert W. Gray disappeared along with his Navy airplane. For more than 50 years, McConnell thought her brother and five other crewmen aboard had been lost at sea.
When genetic testing identified the remains, McConnell realized Robert was finally coming home. ``It was just an emotional thing,'' says McConnell, who gave the blood sample that made the match. ``It's just something you never thought would come to pass.''
Two years ago this May, McConnell buried her brother next to their parents in a cemetery not far from the farm where they grew up. She could have chosen a burial at Arlington, but McConnell decided that, after all these years, he should be close to home.
McConnell thinks her parents, who died in 1970, would have been relieved to know their son had returned. They never talked much about their son's disappearance. Their grief, she says, must have been a hardship.
``I didn't realize until I got older and had children of my own what a struggle they must have had,'' she says.
On Memorial Day, McConnell, now 74, will lay a wreath at her brother's grave and attend services put on annually by the local American Legion post, renamed Deiman-Gray in her brother's honor.
During a recent visit to the cemetery, she reached to her brother's grave and tenderly pulled up weeds and swept away dried grass. ``It's put a closure on this,'' McConnell says. ``We knew he was gone, but it's a relief to know what happened.''
-- by Doris Haugen, Associated Press Writer
`He was a kid when I saw him last'
NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Right up until her death in 1968, Livio DeMarco's mother thought he would someday fling open the door with a ``Hi, I'm home!''
``She died hoping he would come back,'' says Nello DeMarco, the surviving brother.
And, finally, Livio has.
In 1943, when both brothers were young Navy men, Livio attended the Navy's school for mechanics in Jacksonville, Fla., and Nello served as a parachute rigger at the naval air station. Before heading out, the brothers spent days together, in town and on the beach.
More than a half-century later, at his suburban home, Nello gently fingers a snapshot of the two together in Navy swimming trunks on a beach. ``I was the last one in my family to see him alive,'' says Nello.
After Livio's plane disappeared, his mother asked: Might Livio still be alive? Probably not, Nello conceded then, especially since a search turned up no sign of plane or crew. ``She listened to me,'' recalls Nello, ``but she still had hopes he would return.''
His parents never said much about their missing son. ``It would shake them up,'' recalls Nello. His father died in 1966. It was only his mother's death two years later that ended her hope that Livio would someday return. ``It's strange,'' Nello says, ``that she would hope that long.''
From the beginning, Nello and his five siblings accepted that their brother was dead. Still Nello was not prepared in 1994 when the Navy called to say the plane and its crew had been found. ``A little choked up,'' Nello asked the commander to call back.
``I thought about my brother while talking,'' says Nello, now a spry 79. ``He was a kid when I saw him last. And here I was, an old man.''
Nello plans to visit the family plot in Pawtucket this week, for Memorial Day. His brother's return has, in a strange way, brought back Nello's youth; it reminds him of boyhood days, and of a close Italian-American family that has faded with time.
He wishes his kid brother had grown up -- to meet Nello's wife, Amelia, and their five grown children, and their four grandchildren. And, of course, he wishes that Livio had a family of his own.
``But,'' Nello says, ``at least he's come home.''
-- by Terrence Petty, Associated Press Writer
`I can go out there ... and feel like the family is complete'
SAN FRANCISCO -- For decades, the sound of a passing plane stabbed at Helen Easton, who lost her half-brother, Navy Airman Carl Brown, during World War II.
``Sometimes I would hear an airplane overhead and think about him,'' she says. ``When I hear one now, I don't think about it anymore.''
Brown's remains -- found at last and identified -- are now buried in the family cemetery plot in Little Shasta Valley, in the shadow of Mount Shasta near the border with Oregon.
Seventy people attended a memorial service in his hometown of Yreka shortly after the Navy returned his remains in 1996.
When Brown's plane was reported missing in 1943, his family went through hell. ``It was horrible because at that time in this area, which is farm country, there weren't many telephones,'' Mrs. Easton said. The Browns eventually found a phone, and sat by it, waiting for word.
Finally, they got together enough gas rationing coupons and drove to Seattle. They visited the base there every day for a week -- hoping for good news that never came.
``I'm very sorry that his mother and father weren't alive when the remains were found,'' Mrs. Easton says. ``All their lives they never knew what happened to him.''
Brown now rests next to his parents. ``I can go out there,'' says Mrs. Easton, ``and lay the fresh flowers on the grave and feel like the family is complete.''
-- by Ron Harris, Associated Press Writer
`My mother lived with the idea they would be found'
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. -- Before she died, Nicolina LaValle saw to it that two empty graves were placed at the family plot. They were marked by two headstones with the words ``Lost at sea'' and ``Missing in action.''
Though decades had passed since her two sons went to war and vanished, there would always be a place for them.
Peter LaValle was 21 when his Navy airplane disappeared while patrolling the West Coast for Japanese submarines in 1943. Just six weeks later, Angelo LaValle, a 28-year-old Air Force bombardier, was lost in fighting in the South Pacific.
There were nine children in the LaValle brood, five boys and four girls. The youngest daughter, now known as Santa Brooks, was 18 when Peter and Angelo disappeared. When a Navy lieutenant told her 51 years later that Peter's remains had been found, her first thoughts were of their mother.
``She never really got over all this,'' says Mrs. Brooks, who at 73 is one of three surviving siblings. ``Even knowing that he would be found, even not alive, probably would have satisfied her. But not knowing anything at all ... .''
There were no funerals in 1943.
``My mother lived with the idea they would be found,'' Mrs. Brooks says.
But the family had mourned. The pain stirred again with the phone call from the Navy so many years later.
``There were mixed emotions,'' she says. ``There was joy that he had been found and sadness because we had grieved for him once. I found that after this I was grieving for him again. Not that I minded.''
And her thoughts turned again to Angelo. Peter was to come home to a hero's welcome. There would be a ceremony at Arlington. Not for Angelo.
``They were both missing,'' Mrs. Brooks says. ``My brother Angelo is just lost. He will never be found.''
She takes care to honor him, too, laying flowers at his empty grave at the family plot, with the headstone that says ``Missing in action.''
In 1996, Navy and Marine troops carried a coffin to that plot in Jamestown, where Peter took the place his mother had saved for him.
Mrs. Brooks had the words on his headstone changed. No longer would Peter be simply ``lost at sea.'' He was, at last, ``laid to rest.''
BEACHAM, RALPH R
LCDR US NAVY
WORLD WAR II
DATE OF BIRTH: 05/02/1912
DATE OF DEATH: 08/29/1943
BURIED AT: SECTION 34 SITE 307-A
DEMARCO, LIVIO E
LAVALLE, PETER D
BROWN, CARL A
GRAY, ROBERT W
NESTOR, CHARLES E
Photo Courtesy of Roxsane Wells-Layton, August 2006