Bomber Crew Families Fight Arlington Red Tape Over Crash Date

Thursday, 15 May 2014 10:57 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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For more than 10 years, family members of a crew killed after a World War II bombing mission have been fighting with the military for one thing — making the date right on their loved ones' Arlington National Cemetery tombstones and on a monument for the crew.

The remains of the crew of a U.S. B-24J Liberator, which crashed into a mountain in southern China while returning from a bombing mission were not found until 1996, when Chinese farmers discovered wreckage and the bones of the air crew, 50 years after they went missing, Stars and Stripes reports.

A monument erected by communist officials at the site, to commemorate the cooperation between the United States and China, shows the date when the plane went down, Aug. 31,
1944.

But back home in Arlington, a large monument and six of the men's individual tombstones have the date March 20, 1946 — after World War II ended — because that was the date when the Army reclassified the crew from being missing in action to being dead.

According to cemetery managers, the 1946 date is the only one they have, but family members say the wrong date makes it appear that the air crew did not die during the war, and they want the date changed on the large monument that marks the spot where comingled remains of the crew were laid to rest.

"I think it’s cheating these guys of what they’re owed," said J.D. Deming, the nephew of the plane's navigator, 2nd Lt. Robert Deming. "These guys deserve a World War II date on their grave for eternity — not a 1946 weather balloon accident.”

And the son of one of the flight's gunners said his family would be happy with any solution, including paying to change the date themselves.

"Just make it so when my grandchildren visit there, they'll see the right date — they won’t be confused that maybe this happened after the war," said James Drager, who was just six
months old when his father, Staff Sgt. William Drager, died.

But Arlington does not accept payments from the public, and the Army admits it has not conducted a formal review, even though it promised the families and at least one senator it would.

Arlington has faced its share of problems in recent years. Officials have admitted they don't know who has reserved plots in the 624-acre burial grounds and whether the plots are already filled.

Further, investigators a few years ago discovered a host of problems last year at Arlington, including unmarked graves, bodies buried in the wrong plots, mass graves, and dumped remains.

However, the military says the date on the B-24 crew's monument is not the result of misconduct, but it's because federal law establishes legal dates of death when service members are missing, and Arlington can't change the date.

Years ago, in letters dated Oct. 10, 1944, the crew's loved ones were notified their family members were missing. Two years later, families received another letter that set the date as March 20, 1946, to allow family members to receive the soldiers' pay and allowances and to allow death gratuities.

In March, Army National Military Cemeteries Executive Director Patrick Hallinan recommended families contact the Army Board for Correction of Military Records to change the death date.

"This is Kafkaesque,” Deming said. “They’re just digging in their heels and will not budge. I do believe it’s a can of worms they’re afraid they’ll open."

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