Westmoreland Marine's remains coming home 68 years later

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Marine Cpl. John D. Yeager will come home to Westmoreland County on Saturday, 68 years after his plane disappeared during a World War II night training mission in the South Pacific.

The Department of Defense announced Tuesday that Mr. Yeager's remains have been identified and are being returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

Cpl. Yeager was one of seven Marines aboard a PBJ-1 bomber that did not return from a flight over the island of Espiritu Santo, in what is now part of Vanuatu. The date was April 22, 1944. He was 23 and had lived in New Kensington before joining the Marines. In 1945 he and his crew mates were officially presumed to have died. Their missing plane was the Navy and Marine version of the B-25.

PG map: Vanuatu
(Click image for larger version)

"He was a smiling, handsome guy," Cpl. Yeager's nephew, Bernard Smith, recalled. "And he was so generous. When he came home on leave from the service, he'd say to me, 'I'd brought you something, and it's down by the mailbox.' There would be ice cream or candy."

Mr. Smith, a New Kensington resident, was 6 years old when his uncle's plane disappeared.

While Cpl. Yeager's remains were conclusively identified only recently, search efforts were renewed 18 years ago. In 1994, a group of private citizens alerted U.S. authorities that aircraft wreckage had been found on Espiritu Santo. Some human remains also were recovered at that time, according to the Defense Department.

In 1999, a survey team from the Defense Department's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command traveled to the location. The crash site was located at an elevation of 2,600 feet. Finding extremely rugged terrain, the team determined that specialized mountain training would be necessary to complete a recovery mission, the government said in a statement. From 2000 to 2011, multiple recovery teams excavated the site and recovered remains, aircraft parts and military equipment. The materials found included an identification bracelet bearing Cpl. Yeager's name.

Scientists from joint accounting command and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory evaluated both circumstantial evidence and mitochondrial genetic material from the remains.

When Mr. Smith began an Internet search for information about his uncle in 2008, he discovered that government investigators were seeking to locate relatives of John D. Yeager for genetic testing. Some of the DNA recovered at the crash site was found to match that of Yeager's niece, Marilyn Hendricks Claassen.

Cpl. Yeager's identification bracelet and wedding ring found at the crash site were given to Mrs. Claassen. The ring was engraved with his name and that of his wife Helen and the date of their marriage: June 21, 1941.

"That wedding band is on my hand now," Mrs. Claassen said in a phone interview from her home in New Kensington.

After Mrs. Claassen was born in 1945, her parents asked Helen Yeager to be her godmother. She later remarried and died several years ago.

Although Cpl. Yeager has been gone for many years, his niece said he has remained alive in family memories and stories.

"I think I know my Uncle Jack as well as I knew my father, mom and brother," she said. "He sent lot of letters while he was in the service -- wonderful letters. And in every letter, he wrote 'Don't worry about me.' "

Cpl. Yeager was born May 6, 1920, in New Kensington, the son of Daniel and Anna Cowen Yeager. He had two older sisters, the late Marion Harkins and Rosalia Smith, his niece said.

"His sisters adored him," Mr. Smith said.

The United States entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and her uncle volunteered within a month. "He wanted to be a Marine," she said. He had been married only about six months when he enlisted.

He had wanted to be a tail gunner and was trained for the position, but he almost ate himself out of his job, his niece said. "When he graduated from tail-gunner's school, he weighed 160 pounds," she said. "But he said the Marines fed him too good. When he gained 10 pounds, he no longer fit in the B-25 fuselage. He had to lose that extra weight very fast."

In addition to Mr. Smith and Mrs. Claassen, his survivors include nephews Daniel Harkins, of Carrollton, Texas, and John "Jack" Smith, of Lower Burrell, who was named for his Uncle Jack.

A family service is planned for 9 a.m. Saturday at Ross G. Walker Funeral Home, 217 Freeport Road, New Kensington. It will be followed by a 10 a.m. public service at the funeral home and burial in St. Mary Cemetery, 3330 Leechburg Road, Lower Burrell.

Multiple Westmoreland County veterans organizations, Junior ROTC members from Valley High School and volunteer firefighters will participate in the memorial and burial services.

Families of all seven Marines who died in the Espiritu Santo crash have been invited to a service at 1 p.m. Oct. 4 at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Materials from the crash site that could not be linked to a specific victim will be interred in a grave there.

About 16 million Americans served during World War II and 400,000 died, according to the Defense Department. Sixty-seven years after the war ended, more than 73,000 American military personnel remain unaccounted for.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published September 12, 2012 4:00 AM


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