By Ms. Kelly Morris (U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence)February 1, 2018
It's been said that as long as people keep searching, the answers come.
The adage proved to be true in the community of Defuniak Springs, Fla., as more than 450 people gathered to celebrate the long-awaited return of a World War II hero's remains to his hometown Jan. 27.
First Lt. Ewart T. Sconiers, a U.S. Army Air Forces bombardier, died in German-occupied Poland in 1944 from complications following an injury while a prisoner in the Stalag Luft III Nazi prison camp that was made famous in the 1963 Hollywood film "The Great Escape."
The funeral service at Southwide Baptist Church cemetery marked 74 years to the day he was first interred in Poland.
Maj. Gen. William K. Gayler, commanding general of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, during his graveside remarks said unlike traditional funeral events, this ceremony was a "homecoming."
"The nation works tirelessly and dedicates significant resources to honor its solemn pledge to bring home every veteran and Prisoner of War," Gayler said.
Gayler noted a special link between the ceremony and the burial 74 years prior. He spoke about a large photo, displayed near the flag-draped casket, that showed the original interment of Sconiers in Poland, and the brothers in arms gathered there that day.
During the event, descendants of those servicemembers recreated the photo by standing graveside in the same formation as their ancestors had stood.
"Incredibly the children and grandchildren of those very officers are here today," he said. "It's truly remarkable and touching to see you here and is a very fitting tribute to Lieutenant Sconiers."
Gayler said the ceremony had a connection to the Fort Rucker area. A longtime former resident of Enterprise, Ala., a retired Col. Jerry Sage was known as the "Cooler King" in Stalag Luft III for many escape attempts and resulting time spent in solitary confinement. In his autobiography, "Sage," he penned a line only a former POW like Sconiers could fully appreciate.
"That sentence is simply, 'Home--what a wonderful word,'" Gayler said.
"To Lt. Sconiers, welcome home."
Army Chaplain Maj. Doug Nab, 1st Aviation Brigade, eulogized Sconiers' life and service during an earlier portion of the ceremony, as having arrived "home at last, home at last," he said.
"We as a nation can never fully repay those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and their Gold Star families," Nab said.
As a child, Scoiners was "fearless, fun and adventurous," and during his college years he was characterized as "exceptionally visionary and a natural leader," Nab said.
Sconiers first garnered national attention in August of 1942 as a bombardier on the Johnny Reb, after the copilot was killed by enemy fire and the pilot was badly injured and only semi-conscious.
Sconiers took the controls and flew the plane back to safety. For his actions Sconiers was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military decoration a Soldier can receive.
"His actions show the important role initiative plays in the body today," Nab said.
Sconiers, who was a member of the 414th Bombardment Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, served as a bombardier on a B-17F Flying Fortress during a mission to bomb the German U-boat pens at Lorient, France in October of 1942. The plane was severely damaged by enemy fire but the crew parachuted safely, and were taken as Prisoners of War.
As a POW, Sconiers provided security for the extensive, secret underground escape tunnel project at Stalag Luft III.
In January of 1944, Sconiers purportedly fell on some ice, and died from complications resulting from a concussion.
A field investigation by the American Graves Registration Command in 1948 failed to locate Sconiers' burial site. After years of failed attempts to locate Sconiers' remains, a breakthrough happened in 2015 when an independent researcher found a cross with the name Sconiers in a French military cemetery in Gdansk, Poland. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency requested assistance from the French Embassy in Poland to trace records related to the grave, which revealed there was no French soldier during WWII of that name.
Col. Chris S. Forbes, director for the Europe Mediterranean Regional Directorate, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, went to Poland in 2016 to try to locate Sconiers, who had been categorized as "nonrecoverable" back in 1946.
"We could never get in there because the Cold War froze pretty fast. The Russians occupied that park and made a headquarters there," Forbes said.
It wasn't until the late 1950s that Poland gave France a lease to gather all their deceased military members across Poland and place them in a consolidated cemetery in Gdansk. Sconiers had been buried near the French, so his remains were relocated along with theirs.
"When they saw the name 'Ewart Sconiers' they thought the Germans probably spelled [the first name] wrong. They buried him in Gdansk cemetery as Edouard Sconiers," he said.
Interestingly, Sconiers' headstone was the only one that didn't include the inscription, "Died for France."
The family had a researcher in Belgium who confirmed there was no Sconiers in the French or Belgian service in that time period. The remains were transferred to the United States where DNA testing determined it was Sconiers.
"I was the last 100 meters, I guess. The 10 to 12 year kilometers to the objective are these people gathered here, and Pam Whitelock was the centerpiece of it all," Forbes said.
The search for Sconiers was a long journey but worth the team effort, according to Sconiers' niece, Pamela Sconiers Whitelock.
"Today was the moment for which we'd all been waiting. It's nothing but joy, gratitude, inspiration by these people who have supported and worked, and fueled the fires of the search. It's overwhelming and uplifting," Whitelock said.
"The greatest generation didn't talk about their trials or triumphs. They simply moved forward," Whitelock said.
The next generation must find within them the "want to," and share the stories of heroes from the past, she said.
"Ewart's great, great nieces and nephews know the story, shared the journey, and embraced the debt of gratitude, responsibility and accountability for the today he gave for their tomorrows," Whitelock said. "They understand that the lives they enjoy were, and continue to be, made possible by freedom's defenders."
For anyone who still has a loved one unaccounted for, Whitelock has a simple message.
"Don't give up! You have no idea how the lessons from such a journey will inform your life today," she said.
Forbes hopes Whitelock's testimonial will empower others with a family member that is unaccounted for.
"In 2015, we identified 47. Last fiscal year, we identified 201, so we're continuing to get better," he said.
"It's a noble mission," Forbes said. "We're the only nation committed like this to bring everyone home. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines today can know when we put them in harm's way, we will not leave them. We will come back and find them if, God forbid, they fall; and we will reunite them with their families."