The remains of two Marines missing since World War II will be laid to rest Friday at Arlington National Cemetery, according to this Defense Department news release.
Capt. Henry White and Staff Sgt. Thomas Meek were in a SBD-4 Dauntless dive-bomber that crashed July 21, 1943, on Mavea Island. (The Americans stationed there during the war referred to it as Mafia Island, according to report on the crash compiled in 2012.) If you’ve never of heard of the place, join the club. Mavea Island is a lonely sliver of earth in the South Pacific, not terribly far from Australia — and not terribly close to it either. It’s part of the Vanuatu island chain. (Neat fact: Vanuatu’s national symbol is a boar’s tusk, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.)
SHOUT OUT: That map above is courtesy of Marine Corps Times’ cartography whiz John Bretschneider, who needed mere seconds to pinpoint remote Mavea Island. JB’s artistry has enhanced our stories for years, highlighting everything from aircraft carriers without urinals to Marine-centric workouts named for war heroes.
The Marines’ fateful mission began at Turtle Bay Airfield on Espiritu Santo Island, a key staging point for Allied operations in the Solomon Islands — particularly on Guadalcanal. They were on a nighttime training mission when their plane went down about three minutes after takeoff, said Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s Pow/Missing Personnel Office.
The pilot White, 23, of Kansas City, Mo., and his gunner Meek, 19, of Lisbon, La., were assigned to a Marine scout bomber squadron, said Marine Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman for the Corps. White was commissioned as an Marine officer in 1942, having come up through the Navy Reserve where he learned to fly military aircraft. Meek, Haney noted, is the great grandson of noted explorer and “legend of the American West” Kit Carson.
Their plane, designated with bureau number 06969, came from a line of aircraft that was credited with sinking gobs of Japanese vessels during the war. The crash occurred on a coral cliff less than two miles from the runway. A rescue party found its burnt wreckage and collected what they could of White and Meek, burying the remains in a nearby ravine, the report says.
Four years later, after the war had ended, a team of personnel with the Army’s 604th Quartermaster Graves Company went to Mavea Island to investigate White’s crash and that of 2nd Lt. Bernard Jensen, whose aircraft had no identifying bureau number. From the report:
The search team met two island natives identified as “Willy and Billy.” Willy and Billy informed the search team that there was an airplane crash on the island two years earlier (1945), that the pilot died from the crash, and that a Marine search party found the crash (with Billy’s assistance) and took the body to Espiritu Santo. … Billy led the search party to an area of thick jungle and described what he saw there on the day of the crash. He explained to the [soldiers]that he and the Marine search party found only the pilot’s body approximately 100 feet from the airplane. After a search of the crash site for any remaining evidence, the search team left Mavea Island without finding the BuNo 06969 crash site.
Two years later, White and Meek were declared “non-recoverable” and their names were etched on the Tablets of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
The search resumed in 2010 when, during a separate recovery mission in Vanuatu, personnel from the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command snapped aerial photos of Mavea Island. A year later, a team was on the ground interviewing residents, including Willy’s son, who was a child at the time of the crash. Excavation began in August 2012.
The team found some bones along with old U.S. and Australian coins, White’s rank insignia and Meek’s ID card. They concluded that although it was impossible to biologically identify the men, the material was enough “circumstantially” to conclude the missing Marines had been found.
White and Meek rate the Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded to the 1st Marine Division for its efforts on the Solomon Islands between August and December 1942, Haney said. The PUC is considered the unit-level equivalent of the Navy Cross. Each man also is entitled to a World War II victory medal.
They will be buried with full military honors at Arlington, officials said. Both sets of remains will occupy a single casket.