United States Navy Air Crew Returned Home 50 Years Later
contemporary press reports: May 1998
Families have their lost boys back
Lieutenant 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 August 29, 1943.
Six people were on board for what the official report would call "a routine instrument training flight." Beacham and his co-pilot, Ensign Charles Nestor. Machinists mates Carl Brown and Livio DeMarco. Ordnance man Robert Gray. Radio man Peter LaValle.
The weather was fine at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. But to the east, in the mountains, conditions were not so good.
Beacham was a 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 southwestern 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, PV-1 No. 34637 disappeared.
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.
In October 1994, Charles Eaton, a 55-year-old welder from Bellingham, was hiking on Mount Baker, a dormant, ice-capped volcano 50 miles northeast of Whidbey Island.
At 7,500 feet, Eaton came upon a jumble of blackened metal and human bones.
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, 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 awhile, mostly about what's new with our families," Nello DeMarco says.
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
tomorrow, Memorial Day, their loved ones rest below.
SARASOTA, Florida - Ruth Nestor was a newlywed, married just eight months, when her 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 worry.
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.
Ruth went quietly to the burial service at Arlington.
"It gave me comfort to finally know. But, I
mean, the years do a lot of healing."
CORNELIUS, Oregon - Virginia Beacham was the rock.
From the time Navy officers knocked on her door in 1943 with the news that her husband's bomber had vanished, she held her family together.
She always said he would 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."
Virginia Beacham, 85, has since moved into a nursing home, her lucidity ebbing.
She was seven months pregnant when Lieutenant Commander Ralph Beacham was killed. She reared their two boys alone.
"She never did remarry," says their son Ralph, 58. "She carried this love around for all those years."
Ralph 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 promised to be their guide.
GEDDES, South Dakota - 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 Gray disappeared along with his Navy airplane.
Two years ago, McConnell buried her brother next to their parents in a cemetery near 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.
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.
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.
"I didn't realize until I got older and had
children of my own what a struggle they must have had," she says.
NORTH PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island - "I was the last one in my family to see him alive," Nello DeMarco says of his brother Livio.
In 1943, when both brothers were young Navy men, Livio attended the Navy's school for mechanics in Jacksonville, Florida, and Nello was 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, Nello gently fingers a snapshot of the two together in Navy swimming trunks on a beach.
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.
From the beginning, Nello and his five siblings accepted that their brother was dead. Still, he 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 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 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, their five grown children and their four grandchildren.
And, of course, he wishes that Livio had a family of his own.
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 are now buried in the family cemetery plot in Little Shasta Valley, in the shadow of Mount Shasta near the border with Oregon.
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," 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 every day for a week - hoping for good news that never came.
Brown now rests next to his parents. "I can
go out there," Easton says, "and lay the fresh flowers on the grave and
feel like the family is complete."
JAMESTOWN, NEW YORK - 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."
Although 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 patroling 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 Brooks, who at 73 is one of three surviving siblings.
"My mother lived with the idea they would be found," she says.
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.
She takes care to honor them both. She lays flowers at Angelo's empty grave at the family plot, with the headstone that says "Missing in action."
Brooks had the words on Peter's headstone changed. No longer would he be "Lost at sea." He was, at last, "Laid to rest."
Posted: 24 August 2000 Updated: 1 December 2001 Updated: 13 November 2005
Lieuenant Commander, United States Navy
Ensign, United States Navy
Machinist Mate, United States Navy
Machinist Mate, United States Navy
Ordnance Man, United States Navy
Radio Man, United States Navy