Clifford Pindell – Petty Officer, First Class, United States Navy

Courtesy of the Washington Post, December 1999

Clifford Pindell has come home.

Pindell, a Washington native who was raised in Baltimore, left the area soon after Pearl Harbor in 1941 to go to the Pacific Theater with the Navy. But before he went, he had a chance to see his new nephew, Clay Pindell, who was less than a year old at the time.

On August 6, 1942, Petty Officer 1st Class Clifford Pindell, then 24, was part of an eight-man crew aboard a PBY-5 Catalina, a Navy reconnaissance plane sent out on a routine patrol mission over New Hebrides in the South Pacific. Fierce fighting was underway in the theater, including the American push to take Guadalcanal from the Japanese. The weather was bad, and the plane never returned. Searches failed to find any trace of the plane or its crew.

Clifford Pindell’s family back home in Maryland soon learned the sad news.

“My father was just furious,” said Clay Pindell, now a 58-year-old retiree living in Alexandria. “He went down right away to go enlist and fight the Japanese.”

But the missing crewman’s brother was not allowed to fight because his job with the telephone company was considered essential on the home front, Pindell said.

Over the years, Clay Pindell heard stories from his father and other family members about his popular and handsome uncle and his death serving the country. Until recently, all he had was the family lore.

Then in 1994, relic hunters discovered a crash site on the island of Espiritu Santo, now part of the Republic of Vanuatu, and notified U.S. officials.

A team from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory from Hawaii excavated the site in March and April 1994 and recovered human remains, equipment and personal items and an unexploded 500-pound bomb among fragments of aircraft wreckage.

Lab specialists have used forensic tools, including DNA testing, to identify the crewmen. As the work progressed, they began notifying family members.

Several years ago, Clay Pindell received a phone call from his father, Charles, now living in Florida. “They’ve found Uncle Clifford’s remains,” the father said.

Clay Pindell was stunned. “I didn’t even know there was a possibility,” he said. “We thought he was at the bottom of the Pacific.”

Navy investigators believe the plane, flying in heavy fog, lost one of its engines. The crew may have turned the plane to return to its base but struck a tree on the island, lost a wing, crashed and burned.

On November 17, 1999,  the Pentagon announced that the remains of Clifford Pindell and the seven other crew members had been identified and returned to their families for burial. The others are Petty Officer 1st Class William H. Osborne, of Martinsville, Va.; Lt. Maurice S. Smith, of Lodi, Calif.; Ensign Edward W. Riepl, of Herndon, Kan.; Petty Officer 1st Class James W. Pearson, of Alliance, Neb.; Petty Officer 2nd Class William R. Pipes, of Pesckasha, Okla.; Petty Officer 2nd Class Merlin J. Rich, of Wheeler Township, Mich.; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Vernon H. Stolz, of Saginaw, Mich.

A funeral with full military honors was held for Clifford Pindell on November 16, 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery.

On behalf of his father, who was too ill to attend, Clay Pindell received the folded flag that had covered the remains.

It was an emotional event, he said, “much more so than I would have thought. I didn’t even know my uncle. But these were eight guys who gave their lives for their country all at once.”

More than 78,000 Americans from World War II remain unaccounted for, according to the Pentagon.

November 17, 1999

     Remains of eight servicemen who were missing in action from World War II have been identified and are being returned to their families for burial in the U. S.

     They are identified as Lt. Maurice S. Smith, Lodi, Calif.;  Ensign Edward W. Riepl, Herndon, Kan.;  Petty Officer 1st Class Clifford M. Pindell, Washington, D.C.; Petty Officer 1st Class James W. Pearson, Alliance, Neb.; Petty Officer 2nd Class William R. Pipes, Chickasha, Okla.; Petty officer 2nd Class Merlin J. Rich, Wheeler Township, Mich.; Petty Officer 1st Class William H. Osborne, Martinsville, Va.; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Vernon H. Stolz, Saginaw, Mich., all U. S. Navy.

     On August 6, 1942, these crewmen were flying a routine patrol mission whose search sector took them over the island of Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides.  The weather was reported as adverse, and the aircraft never returned to its home base in New Caledonia. Searches failed to uncover any traces of the PBY-5 Catalina aircraft or crew.

     In 1994, the U. S. Embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, notified the U. S. Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) that relic hunters had discovered the crash site of an American aircraft on Espiritu Santo (now part of the Republic of Vanuatu.)  A CILHI recovery team excavated the site in March and April 1994 and recovered human remains, personal effects, and crew-related items among fragments of the aircraft wreckage.

     Over the next five years, CILHI specialists applied the latest forensic identification tools to the effort of identifying these crewmen.  Among the tools used was that of mitochondrial DNA, in which a blood sample from the maternal blood line is compared to the DNA from a bone fragment of the deceased serviceman.  Mitochondrial DNA tests are conducted by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md.

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