Genealogy To The Rescue

Spanish surgeon Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido, left, walks back towards the Gregorio Maranon Hospital in Madrid, Wednesday, Jan 17, 2007, after taking a break. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
AP Photo
In a story that began more than half a century ago during World War II, an American serviceman was missing and unaccounted for until luck, science and some unusual detective work intervened.

CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports it is more than 50 years late but Army Air Corps Sergeant Robert Kearsey finally got a proper military funeral.

Grady Kearsey never knew his uncle. But he'd heard the stories about how his plane disappeared after a bombing run in 1944.

"He's no longer just a story, just a photograph," Grady Kearsey says. "He's actually here. His remains are here."

The wreckage of Robert Kearsey's bomber remained undiscovered for more than 50 years on an isolated mountain in Southern China. It took the U.S. Army three years just to get the remains of the 10 crewmen out. But that was the beginning of Robert Kearsey's trip home.

"When I realized there was a problem, that we...may not be able to identify him, he became very important to me," says Johnnie Webb, who runs the Army's identification lab in Honolulu. Army scientists needed a sample of DNA from a maternal relative of Kearsey's.

There's new technology that uses that kind of DNA to make positive identification of very old remains. But the Kearseys had always believed the maternal side of their family had died out.

But the Army had a secret weapon.

"I'm going to get this family today if it kills me," declared Lynda Abrams, a retired Air Force sergeant and now an especially aggressive genealogist.

Abrams traced the Kearsey family tree back to the 1800s.

"It was very hard because it seemed like no matter what I tried, I couldn't get the information I needed," she says.

She finally found - in rural Alabama - Annie Bell Burch, 93 years old and a distant cousin -- a maternal cousin.

Had Grady Kearsey ever heard of Annie Bell Burch?

"Never in my wildest dreams," he says.

And finding Burch meant getting a DNA sample that confirmed which remains were Sergeant Robert Kearsey's, that made this funeral with full military honors possible and that allowed Kearsey to later be buried in the family plot in Jacksonville, Fla.

But this may not be the end of the Kearsey family story. In 1943 Sergeant Kearsey's brother was shot down; his body was never recovered, and the family had given up all hope of ever getting his remains, until now.