WWII Airman lost in Pacific brought home to Montana after 70 years

WWII Airman lost in Pacific brought home to Montana after 70 years

MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. — Seven decades after his aircraft was shot down during a mission in World War II, an Army Air Forces aviator finally came home to Augusta, Mont.

Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William D. Bernier was buried with full military honors Sept. 19 at the veteran’s section of the Augusta Cemetery, only a few miles from the ranch where he grew up. By coincidence, the date was also National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day, observed annually on the third Friday of September.

Military funeral honors were rendered by a joint detail of six Soldiers from the Montana Army National Guard’s honor guard and eight active-duty Airmen from Malmstrom’s base honor guard. Together, they symbolized the Air Force’s origins as a component of the Army.

A hearse carrying Bernier’s remains arrived from Great Falls, Montana, at approximately 2 p.m., escorted by motorcycles from Montana’s Patriot Guard Riders. A color guard from the American Legion Post #51 in Augusta, joined by other veterans from around the state, lined the entrance and welcomed the hearse into the cemetery.

The honor guard carried Bernier’s American flag-draped casket from the hearse to his final resting place. Chaplain (Col.) Kenneth DuVall, the Montana National Guard’s state chaplain, officiated the ceremony and led the gathering of approximately 100 people in comforting words and prayer.

Malmstrom AFB’s honor guard fired three salutary volleys with crisp precision toward the calm blue sky and the Soldiers carefully folded Bernier’s flag into a tri-corner.

Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the Montana National Guard’s adjutant general, presented the flag to Sandi Jones, Bernier’s niece.

“The motto of the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Command, which handled the recovery, investigation and repatriation of 1st Lt. Bernier’s remains, is, ‘Until they are home,’” Quinn said. “This particular case, which involves more than a decade of careful and diligent work to return this Airman, is just one example of the strength of that motto.”

The interment ceremony provided closure to Bernier’s relatives after decades of waiting for his return and wondering about his fate.

“To me, he was a hero,” Jones said. “I really wish I could have met him.”

Jones only knows Bernier through stories and anecdotes, and a single photograph of him wearing his Army uniform. Her uncle was tall and well-liked, she said, and was known by his nickname ‘Laddie.’

“He was a real character,” Jones said. “He liked to joke.”

Bernier was born in 1915 in Augusta and attended Montana State University. He purchased some land near his parents’ ranch, and planned to homestead it after the war, Jones said. Bernier never married.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, drawing America into the global war. Three days later Bernier, then 26, enlisted into the Army in Seattle, Washington, as a private.

“Obviously he was serious about this, that he was going to take care of our country,” Jones said. “He believed it was the right thing to do. I know his mother didn’t think it was. His father was very proud of him.”

Bernier received basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, and was later commissioned into the Army Air Forces. He graduated from the 10-week bombardment school at Ellington Field near Houston, Texas, and was assigned to a B-24 Liberator operational training squadron at Wendover Field, Utah. In October, 1943, Bernier was ordered to Herington Field, Kansas, for final processing before duty overseas.

He was assigned to the 90th Bomb Group, 321st Bomb Squadron, in the Fifth Air Force. The ‘Jolly Rogers’ were already veterans in a desperate campaign to neutralize Japanese forces encroaching on Australia’s northern coast. The group’s heavy bombers, distinguished by a skull and crossed bombs painted on each B-24’s rudder, decimated sea convoys and pounded Japanese defenses throughout the Southwest Pacific. By March, 1944, the 90th BG had relocated to Nazdab Air Field, a forward base on New Guinea approximately 100 miles southeast of enemy strongholds on that island.

Bernier was reported missing in action April 10, 1944, during a raid on a vital Japanese-controlled port at Hansa Bay. His B-24D, serial number 42-41188, was leading a 60-bomber formation when it was mortally struck by anti-aircraft bursts. The burning aircraft arced west, disintegrated, and plummeted into a dense bamboo forest a few miles inland. At least four of the 12 crewmen on board were able to parachute from the aircraft, according to observers, but were later reported to have died in captivity.

Search attempts for the downed crew began immediately and continued after the war. The Army Graves Registration Service recovered the remains of three of the missing Airmen. In 1949, however, AGRS concluded the remaining nine crew members — including Bernier — were unrecoverable.

Bernier’s mother always refused to accept that her son was dead, Jones said.

“His mom believed that he was still alive and he was coming home,” she said. “She would not hear about anything else, so you really couldn’t talk to her about who he was. He was going to come home and he was going to ranch, and that was it.”

Jones continued to seek information about Bernier. About 15 years ago, she visited an Army recruiter, hoping he could help her locate records about her uncle. It was not possible, she was told, without Bernier’s Social Security number or dog tags.

Wreckage bearing the tail number of Bernier’s aircraft was located in 2001 by a team of the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory. Human and non-biological evidence was excavated from the site between 2008 and 2011 by teams from Joint Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Command (JPAC). Bernier’s remains were positively identified earlier this year by scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory using circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools including mitochondrial DNA that matched Bernier’s cousins.

The Army contacted Jones in 2011 and asked her if she was willing to accept her uncle’s remains once they were positively identified, she said. It would be an honor, she told them. Jones renewed her pledge each year, waiting patiently for final affirmation. In June, she received the news that Bernier had been accounted for.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was so amazed and so happy. ‘Oh my gosh, we’re bringing him home!’”

Bernier was eligible for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, Jones said. That didn’t feel right to her, and Jones opted to make local arrangements instead.

“He was a Montana boy and he had never gone to Washington, D.C., as far as I know,” she said. “He never got to come home so it just seemed like the best thing was to take him home.”

An Army dignified transfer team delivered Bernier’s remains to Billings Logan International Airport in Billings, Mont., Sept. 17. Bernier was escorted by motorcyclists to a funeral home in Great Falls that evening.

“Everybody has been so helpful, and everybody wants to get involved,” Jones said. “The Masonic Lodge is sending people, the Army is sending people, the Air Force is sending people, and I think that is just really nice. I don’t think you can have too many people to honor him.”

Malmstrom’s participation in the ceremony allowed the Air Force to pay its respects to a fallen hero. It also reminded Airmen of their heritage: The 90th Missile Wing’s 90th Operations Group and 321st Missile Squadron at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., continue the lineage of Bernier’s bombardment group and squadron. The 90th MW is one of the 341st Missile Wing’s two sister intercontinental ballistic missile wings assigned to 20th Air force.

Most importantly, the ceremony firmly reassured Airmen that the nation is firmly committed to the return of all of its missing warriors. Nearly 1,500 Airmen are still unaccounted for from various conflicts. There are more than 83,000 Americans still unaccounted for across the Department of Defense.

“It took a long time to bring him home, but America never forgot,” said Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein, the Task Force 214 and 20th Air Force commander. “It takes a massive amount of effort and time to locate a missing person, and it’s truly amazing when we can bring home America’s sons and daughters who sacrificed it all for the freedoms we hold dear today. It’s fitting that Lieutenant Bernier is laid to rest on National POW/MIA Day, and I’m proud to know this Airman and his family have found peace.”

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