Minnesota Army airman, eight others killed in WWII bomber crash identified

Minnesota Army airman, eight others killed in WWII bomber crash identified Click to Enlarge Photo:

Sep 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KNSI) - The remains of a southern Minnesota airman, one of nine members of an Army bomber crew shot down and killed nearly 70 years ago during World War II, have been positively identified and will be buried with the rest of his crew Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery, the Department of Defense announced.

The DoD's POW/Missing Personnel Office confirmed Tuesday that remains found in Papau New Guinea in 2001 at the crash site of a B-17E Flying Fortress belong to Tech. Sgt. Robert L. Christopherson of Blue Earth.

Christopherson was one of four crewmen whose remains were positively identified through recent DNA testing conducted by the Defense Department, the agency reported. Five other members of the B-17 crew were previously identified back in 1985.

The 10-man crew of the Army B-17E nicknamed Naughty but Nice took off from an airfield near Dobodura, P.N.G., on June 26, 1943 to carry out a bombing mission over Rabaul.

The bomber was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, then ultimately shot down by Japanese fighter aircraft, the Defense Department stated.

Christopherson and eight fellow crewmen died, but the sole survivor of the crash, 2nd Lt. Jose L. Holguin, was held as a prisoner of war until his release in September 1945.

In 1949, U.S. military personnel were led by local citizens to the B-17 crash site. Remains were recovered, but couldn't be identified given the technology of the time. Those remains were later buried as unknown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

But in 1982, Holguin returned to the area and located the crash site, which led to the eventual recovery of plane fragments and more remains in 1985.

Remains of five crewmen were positively identified later that year and 2nd Lt. Herman H. Knott, 2nd Lt. Francis G. Peattie, Staff Sgt. Henry Garcia, Staff Sgt. Robert E. Griebel, and Staff Sgt. Pace P. Payne were each individually buried.

In 2001, another forensic team with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command returned to the site and found additional human remains and crew-related equipment.

Dental comparisons and mitochondrial DNA samples -- which matched those of some of the crewmembers' families -- helped finally identify Christopherson and the remaining three crewmen.

Also identified were Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William J. Sarsfield of Philadelphia; 2nd Lt. Charles E. Trimingham of Salinas, Calif.; and Tech. Sgt. Leonard A. Gionet of Shirley, Mass.

The Defense Department said the remains of Christopherson, Sarsfield, Trimingham and Gionet will be buried in a single casket Wednesday along with remains representing their previously identified crewmates in ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.

The U.S. government was unable to recover and identify approximately 79,000 Americans killed during World War II. Today, more than 73,000 are still unaccounted for from the conflict.

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