After nearly 54 years, pilot comes home


December 26, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

THE HEROIC, tragic and remarkable story of 1st Lt. Frank Ramos, Army Air Forces, finally ends next month when Michael Stepanovich and his mother, Doris, bury the father he never knew and the husband she knew too briefly. The bones of Ramos will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, nearly 54 years to the day after his cargo plane disappeared without a trace into one of the distant, frozen terrains of World War II.

On Jan. 31, 1944, co-pilot Ramos and four crewmen were in a C-87, the cargo version of a B-24 Liberator bomber, on a return flight of several hundred miles from Kunming, China, to Jorhat, India. They were flying "The Hump," the high Himalayas, taking part in the Air Transport Command's huge airlift of supplies to the Chinese National Army of Chiang Kai-shek, an ally who was fighting Japanese invaders.

Ramos' four-engine aircraft was flying over spectacular mountains its crew probably could not see and through ferocious Himalayan winds. The plane, No. 41-23862, never reached Jorhat. A search for it was unsuccessful, and Frank Ramos was presumed to have become one of the more than 900 airmen who died in the hazardous Hump missions between 1942 and 1945.

He left behind a young widow and an infant boy in Austin, Texas. "I was 19 years old and my whole world crashed," said Doris Ramos Stepanovich, who remarried and moved with her son and second husband to the Baltimore area. "Michael was born Jan. 7, 1944, and Frank disappeared Jan. 31. He never saw a picture of Michael, but he knew he had been born."

Michael lives in Randallstown. He'll be 54 next month.

For the past few years, he and his mother have been living with the bittersweet possibility that they would one day put Frank Ramos to final rest.

In the fall of 1993, some hunters found the scattered wreckage of a

C-87 on the slope of a glacial mountain near Bomi, Tibet. The glacier had melted and, as it shifted, revealed the twisted metal of a plane that apparently had been locked in ice for [ [See Rodricks, 5b] decades. The remarkably well-preserved remains of three bodies were recovered and returned to the United States.

A year later, a team of searchers from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii went to the Himalayas and hiked four days to reach the site of the C-87. Remarkably, the glacier that gave up the first three bodies had melted and shifted again. Two more sets of remains were recovered. The C-87 was positively identified as Frank Ramos' by serial numbers taken from parts of the plane.

When I first reported on these events in 1995, the commander of the CIL in Honolulu told me that he knew of no other recovery of a World War II Hump mission plane from the Himalayas.

The Army made the identification of the crew from meal chits. Crew members apparently had signed small cards for meals the day of their final mission. Pieces of the cards were recovered at the site of the wreck and brought back to Hawaii. Though the signatures were faded, forensics experts in the Honolulu Police Department were able to use ultraviolet and infrared enhancements to bring out three of the five names. In addition, police were able to decipher a name from cloth recovered from the C-87 and believed to be a piece of a crew member's shirt. The Army also has done some DNA testing of the remains.

Recently, the Army presented Doris and Michael Stepanovich with its final report and announced the burial ceremony for Lt. Frank Ramos. It will take place Jan. 22 at Arlington.

Latin to the maximus

I know what fans of the Latin rite are going to say: "Est admodum quod volui!"

St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy will celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, with a special Latin Mass at 7 p.m. The Rev. Nicholas Rinaldi will wear vintage vestments from the good old days when only parishioners who knew the ancient tongue could follow the Mass. Keeping things "period," the priest will frequently have his back to the congregation as he celebrates Mass. Hymns and responsorials will also be in Latin.

Is this for real?

Would this old altar boy lie?

Loquiturne pontifex maximus Latine?

Ringed in mystery

A column last week mentioned the 1962 Herndon (Va.) High School class ring discovered in the backyard garden of Mildred and Clarence Faries in Northeast Baltimore. What's really weird is that, last week, the principal's office at Herndon High received two calls about class rings. Someone in the District of Columbia had found a 1942 class ring and, like Mildred and Clarence Faries, had called the school for help locating the owner. A school secretary told me it's "highly unusual" for the school to receive even one such call.

By the way, I'd like to offer my theory on how that ring ended up in the Faries back yard: The Herndon grad worked in a greenhouse and she lost the ring while composing tomato sets. The Faries purchased the set and planted them. Sooner or later the ring was bound to pop out of the soil. Mark my words.

Contact Dan Rodricks at; by post at 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278; or by voice mail at 410-332-6166.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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