Friday, June 8, 2012

Lost Boys of WWII

“What happened to my son?” “Did he know he was about to die?” “Did he suffer?” These are questions my great-grand aunt surely asked herself for the last thirty-something years of her life. Nearly 70 years ago today Lulu (Flynn) Elson lost her only son during World War II. While this was understandably a blow to her, the worst part was that she spent the rest of her life wondering how he died. Sadly, she went to her grave without answers. It is some consolation to me that I now know what happened to him thanks to declassified information.

Harris W. Elson was a Sergeant in the Air Force's 11th Bombardment Squadron stationed in the China Burma India theater of operations. Early 1942 was a tense time in the region. Japan had recently invaded Burma, pushing out Allied forces. The invasion severed the Burma Road, 717 miles of narrow road winding through the mountains from Lashio, Burma (now Myanmar) to Kunming, China. The only supply line for carrying war materiel into China was now gone. The Allies feared that with China isolated, the Japanese could divert resources from China toward fighting the Americans in the Pacific. [1] With Burma lost and a ground assault out of the question, the Allies presumably hoped to limit Japanese air power in the region.

To that end, on June 3, 1942, Harris Elson's plane and five others left Dinjan, India. Their mission was to bomb the airfield in Lashio, Burma before continuing on to Kunming, China. Shortly after take-off they were immersed in clouds and the planes lost sight of each other. Five of them managed to regroup, one of them Elson's, and despite the heavy clouds, bombed the Lashio runway from a height of 1,500 feet.

Less than a minute after the main group struck the target squarely, the sixth plane arrived and successfully dropped five bombs down the middle of the second runway. Two enemy fighters pursued the sixth bomber, being an easier target than five planes flying in formation. The bomber's top-gunner quickly disabled one enemy aircraft, but the other engaged the Americans for about thirty minutes. The enemy made over ten passes, before finally desisting. Sergeant Zeuske was an early fatality in this skirmish, but fortunately, the bomber safely reached Kunming.

Meanwhile, the other five planes were flying in formation at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Due to the mountains and frequent rain, they soon found themselves again engulfed by clouds. Only two of the five bomber crews and only one of the planes eventually reached Kunming. Through the mist, the soldiers must have watched in horror as they glimpsed the lead plane crash into the side of a mountain. Blinded by cloud cover, two of the other planes did the same. “The other two aircraft missed the mountain by only a fraction, the crews, for just a moment, were close enough to observe grass and trees through the heavy cloud, and they observed the flash caused by the others' crash.” [2] Despite the enshrouding weather, one plane managed to arrive in Kunming in one piece. The other ran out of fuel en route and crashed in the jungle. The crew jumped from the plane and finally reached Kunming two weeks later. Fortunately, those who perished probably never saw it coming.

The  B-25 Mitchell, shown below, may have been the type of plane flown on this mission.

 This photo came from Wikipedia.  According to that site: "This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain."

I found the information about Harris Elson's plane in the Missing Air Crew Reports at Fold3. These records were declassified in 1982. That was too late for Lulu, but I'm happy I can finally answer Lulu's question, “what happened to my son?” Unfortunately, Harris Elson's remains may never return home.

According to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) there are still more then 73,000 Americans from World War II who remain unaccounted for. Harris Elson, is among them. I am probably one of only a handful of people who would wish to see his remains repatriated as neither he nor his siblings had children.

Should relations between the US and Myanmar improve it could eventually pave the way for search and recovery operations to take place, assuming there is good information to indicate where to search. Even if relations improved and remains from his crash site were recovered and returned to the US one obstacle would remain to be surmounted. His remains would need to be positively identified. This can only be done through a mitochondrial DNA test. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is used because it is smaller in length and more prevalent in the body than genomic DNA. Therefore, more material is present in the remains to yield a useable sample. The other good thing about mtDNA is that anyone who descends through the same female line could provide a comparison DNA sample with a simple swab of their cheek.

Currently, there are 2360 servicemen (from the WWII, Korea, Vietnam or the Cold War conflicts) for whom a DNA sample is urgently needed (as of June 5, 2012). If a sample is a match it could return a serviceman's remains to his family for burial. If it is not a match, it could still narrow the field. Even if you have no MIAs in your tree or are not an eligible donor you can still help. If you can find, through reverse genealogy, someone who has the same mtDNA sequence as the deceased, they could submit a sample and possibly send a soldier home. If you want to help, I encourage you to visit the JPAC website which allows you to search a list for each conflict in either PDF or Excel format.

As genealogists, part of what we do is to bring the dead back to life by learning their history. I think that is a worthwhile thing, even if only a few of my relatives see the results of my work. Here is our opportunity to make a bigger impact. If we each spend a little time trying to identify a DNA donor, something that is made easier with the 1940 census, perhaps we can help to bring a dead man home and give him back to the living.

For those who are interested, the comrades of Sgt. Harris W. Elson who perished on the mountainside in Burma are:
1st Lt. Langdon D. Long, 1st Lt. Robert W. Martin, 1st Lt. Fred S. Olson, 1st Lt. Eugene F. McGurl, Sgt. Lee E. Allen, Sgt. Fitchew D. Sims, 1st Lt. James F. Holbrook, 1st Lt. John H. Herzog, 1st Lt. James M. Chandler, S/Sgt. Omer A. Duquette, Sgt. Frank J. Fasanell, Sgt. Marlow W. Kaufmann, Sgt. Edgar P. Loomis, Maj. Gordon C. Leland, 1st Lt. Roy H. Mink, 2nd Lt. Jack W. Kincheloe, M/Sgt. Anthony J. Dominiak, S/Sgt. Melvin J. Gardner, Sgt. Charles R. Hedge and Sgt. Charles R. Thorp.

  1. Clayton R. Newell. Burma, 1942. 12-1-1994. Center of Military History, CMH Pub 72-21.
  2. Missing Air Crew Reports (MACRs) of the US Army Air Forces, 1942-1947, M1380. Original records held by NARA. Microfilm images accessed through MACR 15936.

1 comment:

  1. 14 Oct 2012 - I just discovered your posting. I have been studying the 11th Bomb Squadron and it later parent unit, the 341st Bomb Group, for years. I thought you would want to know that Eugene F. McGurl, Omer A. Duquette, and Melvin J. Gardner were all on Doolittle's Tokyo Raid.