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A LONG TIME COMING HOME

Story ID:5438
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Koror N/A Palau
Year:1944
Person:Sgt. Robert Stinson
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On September 1, 1944 a B-24J Liberator bomber was operating off Koror, Palau’s biggest island. The plane was suddenly hit by anti-aircraft fire and went down in the Pacific. Three members of the crew were seen to parachute out before the plane crashed into the sea. The plane had eleven crew members. Among them was Sgt. Robert Stinson, a 6’4” clown with curly hair and a love of sports, one of six sons.

Robert joined the Army Air Corps right out of high school. He won several medals during the summer of 1944 for participating in several attacks on Japanese Airdromes, military installations, and ships. The name of the bomber was “Babes in Arms.”

The War Department notified Sgt. Stinson’s mother, Vella Stinson, that the plane had been shot down, but had no official status on whether he was alive, a prisoner of war, or deceased. She faithfully wrote letters to the government twice a month, asking if he had been found, or if anyone was even looking for him or his remains. The government politely responded to her letters, but said over and over that no new information was available. She never gave up.

In 2006, Edward Stinson and Richard Stinson, the two surviving brothers, were asked to give DNA samples. On February 1, 2009 Richard Stinson, now aged 87, finally got the call. His brother Robert was finally coming home.

In 1994, a nonprofit group of adventurers and scuba divers began to search for the missing bomber in the waters off the island of Koror. The 15-member group called “Bent Prop” travels to the island nation each year for a month to search for some 200 missing U.S. World War II aircraft.

Half of the wrecks scattered around the 300 tiny islands have missing crew members. The group attended reunions of Stinson’s bomber squadron and were told where members thought they saw the plane go down as they sped back to base. Bent Prop members searched the area for six years and found nothing.

In 2000, several members of the group, while doing research, discovered old black and white photos in the National Archives, taken by a crew member of another bomber just moments after “Babes in Arms” went down. The pictures indicated a splash zone eight miles from where Bent Prop had been looking.

An elderly fisherman told the group he had seen plane wreckage in that area while spear fishing fifteen years earlier. The team dove on the site in 2004 and immediately discovered a B-24 propeller at 30 feet and then the plane, broken in three parts where it had sat for more than 60 years. Debris was scattered up to 70 feet deep.

The team quickly turned over their information to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), the government agency that searches for U.S. Prisoners of War and missing soldiers.

Military divers confirmed the identity of the plane and recovered hundreds of items from the ocean floor. They included dozens of tiny bone fragments, a rusted metal eyeglass frame, and a tangled parachute cord with parachute attached, a shoe sole, coins, dog tags, and a single shoe lace. Femur bone fragments were tested for DNA revealing they were the bones of the 24-year-old Flight Engineer, Robert Stinson. His remains were recovered and recently flown home by the U.S. Air Force. The body was held at a mortuary less than 100 yards from the home where Sgt. Robert Stinson had grown up with his brothers.

The body was to have been buried yesterday, Friday, October 30, 2009 with full military honors in Riverside national Cemetery. The journey home was too long in coming for his mother Vella to see it happen. Only his two surviving brothers, Edward and Richard, could be there to see him finally come home.

Four other missing crew members have also been identified and are returning home. Three others could not be identified. The remaining bones will be buried together and marked with the names of the entire crew at Arlington National Cemetery next spring in 2010. What of the remaining three crew members who were seen to get out with parachutes? Their fate is unknown but it is assumed they were captured by the Japanese and executed.

Others continue to wait for their loved ones, on both sides. Such are the fortunes of war.

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Please visit my website at: www.fredsstoryroom.com.