A World War II airman finally comes home

Baltimorean to be buried with military honors at Arlington 67 years after disappearance

February 11, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

In the photo from 1943, Tech. Sgt. Charles A. Bode and his fellow airmen gaze into the camera, some shirtless, some smiling, looking to modern eyes like cast members of the musical "South Pacific."

But the B-24 bomber crew would soon embark on a very real mission during the intense combat for the Pacific in World War II. The men took off from a port in New Guinea on Nov. 20, 1943; after a routine radio check, the 11 crewmen were never seen or heard from again.

The mission, in a sense, finally ends for the 23-year-old Bode on Friday afternoon, when the Highlandtown man is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

His crewmates — found, like Bode, decades after the war in a remote ravine in what is now Papua New Guinea and eventually identified using modern technology — will be buried there on a later date.

Bode's homecoming necessarily will be bittersweet: In the more than 67 years since he vanished, his parents and his only brother have died. His only survivors are the son and three daughters of his brother, William C. Bode, who were all born after his death but plan to attend the burial at Arlington.

"Daddy would have wanted this, so we're doing this for him," said Debby Wolfe, 55, William Bode's oldest child. "We're doing the closure for him. His brother is coming home."

Clippings from The Sun and The Evening Sun provide some faint outlines of Charles Bode's short life: He was the son of Adam J. Bode and his wife, the former Margaret E. Collins, who lived at 407 S. Macon St. One article said he had attended Patterson Park High School and City College, while another said he had graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic.

He worked at Bethlehem Steel before enlisting in the Army Air Forces in May 1942, and was sent overseas a little more than a year later.

His parents received a telegram from the War Department informing them that Charles, an aerial engineer, was missing in action, The Sun reported on Dec. 2, 1943. His commanding officer wired his family to tell them he had participated in 25 successful missions before going missing, the newspaper reported later that month.

Still missing in July 1944, Bode was awarded an Air Medal "for meritorious achievement while participating in 100 hours of operation flight missions in the Southwest Pacific area."

"Throughout these flights outstanding courage, ability, and devotion to duty were demonstrated," the citation read.

Not much is known about Bode's last flight, described in news accounts at the time as a raid over New Guinea.

"They took off from Port Moresby" in southeastern New Guinea, Maj. Carie A. Parker, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, said Thursday. "They went northwest to conduct a sea search. Their last known location was probably 20 miles to the northwest.

"Their last transmission was over water," Parker said. "The indication was they went down over water, but that was not so."

Search and rescue teams launched at the time failed to locate the aircraft or its 11-member crew, she said, and they remained among the more than 80,000 service members listed as missing from U.S. conflicts.

But in 1984, villagers in eastern New Guinea reported seeing the tail of an airplane sticking up from the rocks in a steep ravine west of the coastal town of Lae in the Morobe Province, Parker said. The mountainous area is prone to landslides, she said, which had buried most of the wreckage under rocks over the years.

Investigators from the Hawaii-based Joint Prisoners of War/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, were able to confirm that the tail number matched that of Bode's plane and eventually recovered a few human bones at the site, Parker said. It wasn't until years later, though, that technology would allow for DNA to be extracted from the remains.

It then took years — and, in some cases, the help of geneologists — to find living family members who could provide DNA of their own to match against that from the remains.

"The next of kin that we had were from World War II, so some of those folks may not be around anymore," Parker said.

JPAC teams returned to the New Guinea site several times, when weather and resources allowed. In 2004, a team was sent to evaluate and partially excavate the site. They found pieces of military equipment, but no more remains.

But as they were searching, two villagers approached. They said they had visited the site themselves — and turned over some bones they said they found there.

DNA matches with surviving relatives enabled investigators to confirm the identities of most of the crew, Parker said. Others were identified through equipment found in the wreckage, such as a machine gun with a serial number that matched that of a weapon assigned to one of the crew.

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