New York Army Guard provides funeral honors for WWII pilot

By Eric Durr and Staff Sgt. Matthew Gunther, New York National GuardMay 22, 2023

New York National Guard Honor Guard Soldiers receive the remains of 1st Lt. John Thomas, a World War II Army Air Forces pilot killed in 1943, at the Rose Cemetery in North Rose, New York, May 20, 2023. Thomas was killed in action during a bombing mission and his remains were not identified until 2022.
New York National Guard Honor Guard Soldiers receive the remains of 1st Lt. John Thomas, a World War II Army Air Forces pilot killed in 1943, at the Rose Cemetery in North Rose, New York, May 20, 2023. Thomas was killed in action during a bombing mission and his remains were not identified until 2022. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Matthew Gunther, U.S. Army National Guard) VIEW ORIGINAL

ROSE, N.Y. — A World War II pilot declared missing in action in 1943 was laid to rest by New York Army National Guard Soldiers on May 20 in Rose Cemetery.

Ten Soldiers from the New York Military Forces Honor Guard provided full honors to Army Air Forces 1st Lt. John B. Thomas following a funeral at the Farnsworth-Keysor Funeral Home in North Rose.

Thomas enlisted in the Army Air Corps in Rochester but was a native of Rose, according to family members.

Thomas was killed Aug. 1, 1943, during Operation Tidal Wave, a bombing attack on the oil fields in Ploiești, Romania. His B-24 was one of 177 that took part in the raid and 55 that did not return.

The Honor Guard conducted 9,824 funeral services across the state in 2022, mostly for retired military personnel, said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Gabriel, the honor guard noncommissioned officer in charge.

But providing military funeral honors for a Soldier killed during World War II is unusual, Gabriel said.

“To conduct them for a service member who died in combat nearly 80 years ago is very unique, and we are lucky to be a part of it,” he said.

John Thomas was buried next to the grave of his twin brother, George, who served in the Marines in World War II and survived the sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp and service on Guadalcanal.

New York Army National Guard Col. Christopher Cronin, chief of the joint staff for the New York National Guard Joint Force Headquarters, presented the casket flag to the family.

“With a U.S. Army Air Corps World War II B-24 Liberator pilot and navigator also in my family’s lineage, it was a privilege and honor to be a part of the ceremony,” Cronin said.

U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. John B. Thomas
U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. John B. Thomas (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

In 2021, New York Army National Guard Soldiers provided military funeral honors for another service member who had been missing in action, Cpl. Robert Agard, who was killed in July 1950 during the opening days of the Korean War.

By law, any American honorably discharged from the military is entitled to military funeral honors at their death. This usually entails a two-person detail that presents a folded flag to the family and sounds taps.

Personnel killed in action, like Thomas, are entitled to honors that include movement of the remains, a firing party, taps and the ceremonial presentation of the colors to the family.

The New York National Guard received the remains at the Frederick Douglas Greater Rochester International Airport and transported them to the funeral home in North Rose May 12.

Thomas was 23 years old when his plane was shot down. One of 660 Airmen who died during the mission, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously for his actions in the raid.

At that time, Romania was an ally of Nazi Germany.

The Romanians interred his remains with those of other unidentified Americans in the hero section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan in Ploiesti.

At the end of World War II, his remains were transferred to an American military cemetery in Belgium and his name was listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy.

In 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began exhuming unknowns in Belgium in search of unaccounted-for Airmen involved in Operation Tidal Wave and bringing them to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for examination and identification.

Using various methods, including dental, anthropological and DNA analysis of a sample provided by Thomas’s nephew, Edwin Thomas, in 2018, his remains were identified on Sept. 30, 2022.

“It was something that most of our family never thought would happen,” Edwin Thomas said. “But the fact that the Army, the Department of Defense, and all these other agencies made this extended effort to do so is very humbling.

“For all these years, Uncle John has been a memory on the wall. Now, we finally have closure,” he said.

Seventy members of the extended Thomas family, veterans and community members attended the memorial service May 20, the birthday of Thomas and his twin.

“This is the biggest and best family reunion we’ve ever had, and it is fitting that Uncle John is the one who brought us together,” Edwin said during the service.

As the remains of Thomas began the journey to the cemetery through town, hundreds of Rose residents lined the streets to pay their respects.

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