Missing in Action during WWII, but Found in the 21st Century

I saw a remarkable documentary last night called “Last Flight Home.”  The film detailed the efforts of a group called the “BentProp Project,” that searched for lost Word War II planes, and their MIA crew, in the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific.  The group had discovered planes in both the water and in the jungle.  The group retrieved serial numbers from the wreckage sites and had been able to identify individual planes through military records of known missing aircraft and crewman.  Amazingly, the team was able to bring closure to several families, who had only known for 60+ years, that their loved one was MIA.

In the film, some of the identified serviceman were remembered by their living siblings, who retold happy stories from their youth, as well as the pain of “never knowing” the fate of their brother.   Nieces and nephews spoke of a “lost uncle,” that had left an unspeakable void in the family tree.  Most touchingly, two men (not related) shared the pain of growing up without their fathers.

One of the men had grown up idolizing his father.  The other man had known that his father may have been of questionable character, and had not pursued more facts.  In both cases, however, the men had little information in which to know their fathers at all, relying on the stories from their mothers, letters, and boxes of wartime keepsakes.  The discovered wreckage in Palau couldn’t help characterize their paternity any further, but it could help close the chapter on the mystery surrounding their WWII MIA airman fathers.  Their memoir, at the very least, could have a sliver of resolution.

Still, 70K+ soldiers remain MIA from World War II.  While the Bent Prop Project has found a handful of planes, many more families will likely never learn the fate of their MIA soldier.  My uncle (my mother’s brother), Ernest O. Kelley, was one of the serviceman reported MIA in World War II.  Ernest was stationed in the Philippines.  He survived the infamous Bataan Death March, but only to become a POW.  According to Ernest’s friend and POW survivor, Howard Mann, Ernest was determined to escape the deplorable conditions of the prison camp.  The men planned to escape together, but Howard became too sick to go.  Ernest left the camp without his friend.  Howard reported, after the war, that he was sure that Ernest had escaped successfully.  The Japanese beheaded prisoners who had escaped and been caught.  Their heads were left on posts in the POW camp to deter further escape attempts.  Ernest’s head had never appeared.

By 1946 the army declared Ernest as dead.  A post-war investigation concluded that he had hidden in a Philippine village after his POW camp escape, but had left upon the approach of Japanese soldiers.  What happened to him after that?  My mother always said that it was likely  Ernest died of malaria in the jungle, but that was only one possibility of many.  Ernest was simply MIA.

Like the niece who told of her “lost uncle” in “The Last Flight Home,” I can identify with the agonizing loss of an MIA soldier and its impact on a family.  My grandmother always held out hope that her oldest son was alive.  My mother was more pragmatic, but spoke of her brother often to keep his memory alive.  My grandmother and mother have both passed now, but I carry the memory of Ernest for them.  Someday, the family may know what happened to Ernest.  It may only take a different form of the BentProp Project.

7 thoughts on “Missing in Action during WWII, but Found in the 21st Century

  1. Kelly, you are as remarkable as your mother. You, as she, have the talent of telling a story in such vivid terms that I feel like I am sharing the experience with you. Both Nancy and I have relatives who can relate to those experiences, however, we were fortunate enough to get them all back. Several with conditions that plagued them and limited their abilities forever, but they came back. They truly were the greatest generation.

    Thank you for sharing this story,

  2. Your uncle is honored in the Manila American Cemetery’s Tablet of the Missing… i could take a picture of the wall the next time i visit the place, if you would like me to?

    World War II Honor Roll
    Ernest O. Kelley

    Corporal, U.S. Army Air Forces

    Service # 19030017

    Signal Air Wing Company

    Entered the Service from: Texas
    Died: 1-Feb-46
    Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
    Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery
    Manila, Philippines
    Awards: Purple Heart

    • Thanks! I have several pictures as my grandmother had ordered flowers for the grave and they always came with snapshots, which I’ve now inherited. How is that you travel to the Philippines? I would like to go, but it doesn’t seem like the safest place. Such a sad history!

  3. This show was excellent and it deserved your terrific review. There is still so much to learn about the single most significant occurrence of the world.

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