PENDLETON — Almost 70 years after a World War II airman crashed in a Papua New Guinea jungle, his family will bury him in a Pendleton cemetery.
Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Ray Thompson, 25, and nine other men vanished from the sky in 1944. The B-24 crew took off on a bombing mission and never arrived at the target. The Army declared him dead two years later.
In 1973, 2002 and 2008, B-24 wreckage and remains of the 10 airmen were discovered at three different sites. DNA testing identified some of the bones as Thompson’s. Verla Tomlinson, the last of the six Thompson siblings, found out in November that she finally could bury her big brother.
While growing up in their Pendleton home, Ray was her gentle protector and the one who settled sibling squabbles, crafted scooters made from apple boxes and roller skates and instigated games of kick the can.
“I always thought of him as a giant,” said Tomlinson, born nine years after Ray. “He was tall and wore size 12 shoes — my parents had to order them special.”
Watching him go off to war in 1942 was difficult, but even tougher was the day a military representative knocked on the door of the family home with news that her brother was missing in action.
“We were devastated,” she said. “My father was never the same.”
Tomlinson, 85, said she still gets emotional nearly seven decades after Ray’s disappearance. She said the family got some closure in 1973 after a Papua New Guinea forestry worker stumbled upon aircraft wreckage and found scattered human remains and four sets of dog tags. One of the tags belonged to Ray E. Thompson.
The wreckage showed no sign of fire or explosion, according to a 2012 military report on recovery and identification efforts.
Family members traveled to Arlington National Cemetery for a special ceremony in 1974, honoring the 10 men and interring their combined remains in two caskets and a common gravesite.
A 1974 article in The Oregonian quotes older sister Daisy Seaman, now deceased, who said the identification tag discovery forced the family to put any remaining hopes aside and finally move on.
“The Army had declared him dead two years after the crash,” she said, “but we always had lingering doubts. We weren’t sure, but what he was still alive, maybe wandering around not knowing who he was.”
She said the family hadn’t realized his job included flying, saying, “We knew he was an airplane mechanic, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was flying for fear we would worry.”
When more wreckage turned up in 2002 and 2008 within a couple miles of the 1974 wreckage, more human bones went to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Oahu, Hawaii, to be sorted out and identified. Blood from two of Ray’s female cousins helped investigators do DNA matching and conclusively identify Thompson’s remains.
Tomlinson said she feels gratitude to the United States government for its tenacity in bringing home lost warriors.
“They’ve taken all this time, money and effort to make sure families know what happened,” she said.
She’s sorry her parents and other siblings, including their oldest sister Daisy, never got to hear the final chapter. Tomlinson, her husband (also named Ray) and other family members will gather in Pendleton at 10 a.m., April 10, for a graveside service at Olney Cemetery. The Pendleton VFW members will assist with the service.