By J.D. LeipoldApril 3, 2013
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 3, 2013) -- Shortly after take-off from the airbase at Nadzab, New Guinea, May 7, 1944, Army Air Corps pilot 1st Lt. John E. Terpning and his co-pilot 2nd Lt. William R. Parkinson began struggling to maneuver and keep "Toughy," a B-24 Liberator, from falling into the valley of thick, dense jungle below.
After earlier having their own Liberator pulled from its mission due to problems with at least one of the four giant Pratt and Whitney engines, the two young pilots, just 20 and 21 years old, along with their crew of eight, instead took a stand-by aircraft on the mission.
The crew raced to catch up with their bombing formation, which was more than 25 minutes ahead of them. But "Toughy" and her crew never did link up with that formation, the aircraft instead crashed into the jungle below.
Within 48 hours, the Airmen were listed as missing in action and an air search was launched. But the formidable jungle and mountainous terrain of the South Pacific island would not betray its secrets.
In February 1946, the War Department sent letters to family members listing the crew as "presumed dead." In a July 18, 1949, follow-up letter, families were additionally notified that the remains of the crew were non-recoverable.
Nearly 30 years after the crash, in 1973, an official from the Papua New Guinea Forest Department reported finding a wartime aircraft in the mountains northeast of the city of Lae, about 15 miles from the airfield. The information was passed on to the Royal Australian Air Force, or RAAF, which sent an investigative team to the wreckage site where they recovered possible human remains.
The RAAF transferred the remains to the U.S. Army Mortuary in Tachikawa, Japan, but technology for positive identification did not then exist. On Oct. 18, 1974, the remains were buried as a group in two caskets at Arlington National Cemetery under a large granite headstone etched with the names of the crew.
Then, just five years ago, in April 2008, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, also known as JPAC, team was sent to investigate and survey the crash site. The team recovered aircraft wreckage that included a radio call sign data plate that matched the aircraft. The team also found additional remains, three dog tags, a wristwatch and a silver ring.
Scientists from JPAC and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools such as dental comparisons and DNA to evaluate the new-found remains. Evidence showed the remains included both Terpning and co-pilot Parkinson. Terpning's DNA had been matched to that of his brother, Howard. The remains from both young pilots were returned to their families for burial.
Today, in keeping with the Army's mandate that no Soldier is left behind, and under full military honors, horse-drawn caisson, escort platoon, casket team, firing party and bugler to play Taps, 1st Lt. John E. Terpning from Mount Prospect, Ill., was repatriated and interred to his final place of rest at Arlington National Cemetery.