Tomorrow in a veterans cemetery in Cheltenham, a World War II pilot shot down over Luxembourg in the winter of 1944 will finally get his funeral. His coffin will be lowered into a plot between two wild cherry trees. His widow and daughter will mourn him. The grounds crew will shovel in the earth. Sixty years after his last breath in the cockpit of a burning P-47D Thunderbolt, the truth of 2nd Lt. John R. Dyer's death has come home.
Returning slain soldiers to U.S. soil and retrieving the story of their deaths from the cloud of confusion that surrounds war is the work of the U.S. Army's Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center in Alexandria, Va. This office handles the bureaucracy of death. Its business is bereavement. It knows the fresh grief over a soldier killed in Iraq. It knows the shadowy sorrow from a death more than half a century ago. And it knows how the mystery of a loss can linger, promoting misinformation and stories that sometimes never get set straight.
But today, in that office, Dyer's name is penned in green ink on a board listing closed cases. Six decades after the Army declared his body "non-recoverable," the facts have returned with Dyer's remains.
Two years ago, the Luxembourg military alerted the U.S. Army to aircraft wreckage found near the town of Niederwampach. The United States sent a team to excavate the crash site, finding teeth, bits of cranium and Dyer's dog tags in a crater that for decades had been used for the disposal of dead livestock. As a result, the Army concluded it was wrong all those years ago when it reported that after Dyer's plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery fire, the airman parachuted to the ground, was captured and later killed by his German guards.
The facts were simpler: There was a hit, a crash, a death.
While the nation focuses its attention on the latest casualties returning to the United States from Iraq, soldiers slain in every U.S. conflict since World War II continue to make a quiet march home. The Army's mortuary affairs office, two floors below the room where Iraq deaths are processed, receives more than 200 inquiries into the deaths of World War II soldiers each month. With the official opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington this weekend, the staff expects even more questions about the 78,000 soldiers from that conflict whose bodies were never found.
Families want answers, even if they come almost a lifetime later.
"It was always a story, what happened to my father," says Carolyn Sowell, Dyer's daughter. "Now it's a reality."
The 59-year-old grandmother from Clinton was just 2 weeks old when her father was killed. Because her mother remarried, the Army considers Sowell the next of kin and has given her power over her father's remains and personal effects. She grew up close to her late stepfather, who adopted her, and always viewed her father's story as unknowable.
Now, the chance to bury John Dyer reaches a part of her past that has long felt inaccessible.
"There's actually going to be something I can do for my father - to finally bring his life to closure," says Sowell, who now thinks about how much the yellow brown in her eyes looks like the color in her granddaughter's - and in her father's - and feels a link to the man she never knew.
She is, at last, closer to him than at any point in her life. She wonders what it will feel like to sit with her father's remains at the funeral home tomorrow. She recalls asking an Army official about those shattered bones.
"Can I open that package up and touch them?" she asked. "So I can touch my father?"
If it will help, he told her. If it will help.
Lt. Col. Ron Long can see the way grief changes over time, the way it stays the same.
As chief of Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support, Long oversees the retrieval of ancient remains of World War II soldiers and airmen as well as the record-keeping for the dead and wounded in Iraq. He knows that families of soldiers slain in the Iraq war are often bereft, confused, angry; they want more information faster, complain there isn't nearly enough.
And he knows there can be more to learn. He tells his staff to take careful records. The Army has retrieved the remains of more than 290 World War II soldiers over the last three decades, thanks in part to reviewing old reports.
Sixty years from now, Long thinks, their Iraq files could be reopened, too.
The retrieval of information surrounding World War II deaths is important for families, of course, and for history. But in the brightly lit warren of offices at the mortuary affairs division, it also provides solace for the people doing the work - it reminds them they are fulfilling the Army's promise to its soldiers, even if it takes decades to do so.