Fallen WWII heroes finally come home

(CBS News) DALLAS - About 83,000 Americans who fought and died overseas are still missing. Their remains were never recovered. Until recently, that group included seven Marine aviators lost in 1944 over a chain of islands in the Pacific. Here is the story of how these heroes were finally brought home.

Second Lt. Walter Vincent's journey to a Tulsa cemetery took 68 years and the help of people who never knew him. Among them, Craig Anderson, who is married to Vincent's niece.

"I guess just the not knowing. I just wanted to know," he said.

The mystery of Vincent's disappearance began to unravel in 1998 when Ned Wernick, who was in the same B-25 squadron, helped restore another plane. It was painted with the same serial number as a B-25 that crashed in a South Pacific storm the night of April 22, 1944 -- the plane carrying Walter Vincent and six other men.

"It brought tears to my eyes when I saw the thing come in," said Wernick. "It got me wondering whether or not those bodies were still out there."

The wreckage had been found weeks after the crash on the island of Vanuatu. But the families were mistakenly told the plane had been lost at sea.

Wernick discovered the error and identified the crash site on a remote mountainside. He began a search for families of the lost men that led him to Craig Anderson and his wife Kim.

"I can remember vividly thinking, 'If this is that plane, if I have found this plane, I'm just gonna have to go see it,'" said Craig.

"I laughed when he first told me that too," said Kim.

In 2007 they flew to Vanuatu, recruited native guides, and hacked through underbrush up the mountain.

"All of a sudden, about 10 feet in front of my face, I saw this propeller," said Craig. "I looked down and I was standing on debris. It was thrilling."

Among wheels and gears, military forensic teams eventually found bones from all seven of the air crew. After DNA identification, the remains finally were released -- including those of the plane's gunner, Wayne Erickson. He was buried in Dallas on Thursday, just two weeks after Vincent's funeral in Tulsa.

Asked why it was important to bring back anything after all this time, Kim said: "To honor 'em, they honored us by going out and fighting for us, and it seems the least we could do."

Some family members say Walter Vincent's mother used to hope he would be found alive on an island. But they bought a burial plot for him back in the 1940s. It was waiting all these years for him to come home.

  • Brian Rooney

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