NAMHAE, South Korea -- Just eight days before the end of the war in the Pacific, two U.S. Army Air Corps B-24 'Liberator' bombers from the 868th Bombardment Squadron departed from Okinawa to conduct an armored search from Hwa-do Island, near Jeju, up the southeastern coast of Korea to Busan. Bomber 780 spotted an enemy craft in the water shortly after 3 a.m., delivered a strike and returned to base just before 9 a.m. Bomber 131 -- coined the Lady Luck -- and her 11 crew, never returned.
Squadron mission records revealed American ships and planes searched the area but were unable to spot any wreckage or signs of life. After a month, the squadron adjutant recommended the crew be officially listed as missing in action. For years, their fate remained a mystery that would become a legacy.
On Aug. 7, 1945, the bomber met with enemy fire over Namhae Island and crashed a few hundred feet below the peak of Mongwoon Mountain.
Namhae County civil servant, Kim Duk-hyun, overheard Japanese soldiers discussing plans to strip the crash site of its military equipment. He attempted to recruit friends to follow them, but they feared the Japanese and refused. Undeterred, Kim paid 20 men to climb the rough terrain, keeping a safe distance from their oppressors. They watched silently from the brush as the Japanese pilfered the plane and left the bodies of the deceased airmen scattered in the blazing sun.
As night fell, the men located the bodies and buried them near the wreckage. Kim took special care to collect identification from each of them in hopes they might one day be identified and repatriated.
When they returned from the mountain, one of the paid laborers turned Kim over to the Japanese, who tortured and imprisoned him for his actions. Fortunately for Kim, the war ended shortly after and he was released.
In the years that followed, Kim made nearly 100 treks up the mountain to camouflage the grave and prevent it from being discovered. When U.S. forces moved onto the peninsula following the Korean War, he was able to lead them to the grave, bringing much-needed closure to the families of the missing crew.
As a tribute to their sacrifice, Kim raised funds to erect a 12-foot granite monument atop Mangwoon Mountain, and by 1989, had established a memorial hall in Namhae City. He orchestrated a ceremony each year from 1945 until his death in 2010, when his eldest son, Mr. Kim Jong-ki, took over. He has continued to honor the tradition, stating "My father always told us the reason he continued this memorial. He emphasized the U.S. Soldiers' sacrifices which helped our country to be liberated from Japanese rule and protected our country from North Korea during the Korean War."
On Nov. 1, USAG Daegu Commander Col. Edward J. Ballanco, Command Sgt. Maj. Alan J. Cline and 10 service members from USAG Daegu, hiked to the site of the mountain memorial to pay special tribute to the crew in recognition of the 74th anniversary.
Later, the Soldiers joined the Kim family, Namhae Mayor Jang Choong-nam, members of the War Memorial Activities Association, Korean War veterans, and the Republic of Korea ROTC Alumni Association at the Namhae memorial hall for a formal ceremony.
"This is especially meaningful to American military," said Ballanco. "It's hard for a lot of American mothers and fathers, sisters, brothers and wives to think of their Soldier thousands of kilometers away, dying in a foreign country. I'm certain the families of these 11 men were very grateful to Mr. Kim and this community for taking care of their loved ones."
The crew are recorded in wartime records as: Edward Mills Jr., pilot; Steve Wales, nose gun; Nick Simonich, co-pilot; Joe Orenbuch, navigator; Ron Johnson, bombardier; Walter Hoover, gun; Jim Murray, engineer; Henry Ruppert, radar operator; Warren Tittsworth, top gun; John Regnault, radio operator; Tom Burnworth, tail gun.