WWII bomber crew buried in Arlington

The 10-man crew of a long-missing bomber from World War II was laid to rest yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, closing the final chapter of a 57-year-old mystery.  About 75 of the crew's relatives — many of whom were not yet born when the servicemen died — attended a somber funeral at Fort Myer. Only one widow of a member of the crew was present, Violet Mertz, 84, of Salina, Kansas.

She was given the folded flag from the casket containing the remains of Army Second Lieutenant Edward M. Sparks, of Alton, Kansas. Their son, Douglas Sparks, 57, of Littleton, Colorado, placed a hand on her shoulder in consolation. Mrs. Mertz remarried after Lieutenant Sparks was declared dead in 1946.

The remains of the other Army Air Corps soldiers were interred together in another casket. Nine soldiers in full-dress uniforms formally presented flags to their next of kin. Other crew members were Second Lieutenant Raymond J. Drewelow, of Waterloo, Iowa; Second Lieutenant James H. Nelson, of Tallulah, Louisiana; Staff Sergeant Arthur J. Swartz Jr., of Aurora, Illinois; Staff Sergeant Joel G. Williams, of Danville, Virginia; Sergeant Anthony G. Scaccia, of New Orleans; Sergeant William E. Van Camp, of South Bend, Indiana; Staff Sergeant Salvatore J. Elhai, of Brooklyn, New York; Second Lieutenant George R. Ellison, of Danville, Virginia.; and Sergeant Gilbert F. Smith, of Princeton, Indiana.

The soldiers served on a B-24D Liberator bomber nicknamed “Ready, Willing and Able,” which disappeared in a thunderstorm March 5, 1944, over Papua New Guinea. Piloted by Lieutenant Dremelow, the bomber had taken off with a squadron at 11:17 p.m. from Nadzab, Papua New Guinea, on a mission to bomb Japanese targets in the Hansa Bay area of Papua New Guinea. No one heard from Ready, Willing and Able again.

After World War II ended in 1945, a U.S. graves registration unit searched for a crash site or graves of the bomber crew and found nothing. The men were declared dead January 25, 1946.

Forty-three years later, European tourists trekking over a mountain range in the Mandang province of New Guinea saw the tail of an old bomber sticking up in the brush. The tail number was that of Ready, Willing and Able. Roger Shortridge of Atlanta yesterday said the wreckage was about 100 feet below the top of the mountain, an indication the bomber was flying too low on that rainy night. Mr. Shortridge's wife, Sandra, is a niece of the crew's bombardier, Lieutenant Ellison.

“All we know, he didn't come back,” Jeff Elhai, 49, of Richmond, said of his uncle, Sergeant Elhai.

Although officials were certain the bomber's tail was that of the missing aircraft, the Army waited until it was certain of the remains and that all crew members were in the wreckage.

Between July 1989 and August 1990, three teams of the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii located, investigated and excavated the site.  The remains were transported to Hawaii, where DNA testing confirmed the identity of each crew member. More than 260,000 people, most from wars fought by Americans, are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. About 3,800 of the graves are for former slaves from the Civil War. About 78,000 service members are still listed as missing from World War II.

Long-lost WWII vet laid to rest with crew

His widow buries Second Lieutenant Edward “Mack” Sparks of Alton, Kansas — nearly 58 years after he died.

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY — The war that took his life swept over the United States 60 years ago today, but not until Thursday did his family bury Mack Sparks.

“I waited my entire life for this,” said his 84-year-old widow, Violet Mertz of Salina.

Mertz clutched the flag that draped her husband's coffin as a color guard fired a volley to salute Marks and nine other crewmen who died over Papua New Guinea in 1944, fighting the Japanese in World War II.

Doug Sparks steadied his mother, offering a handkerchief when necessary. Her daughter, Karen Hendrickson, stood at her side. Both children were less than 2 years old when their father was declared missing.

Most of those at the service Thursday weren't alive when those they were honoring died. Of the four crew members who had wives, Mertz is the only survivor.

“Others didn't get this chance,” she said of her presence at the memorial service.

For the recovery teams and forensic specialists who find missing soldiers, giving survivors of World War II dead the opportunity for a final farewell is a race against time.

Missing in 1944

When Violet Sparks heard that her husband's B-24D Liberator disappeared over the Pacific in 1944, she went on with her life.

She was 27 with two children, ages 18 months and three months.

She later married Lester Mertz, one of Edward “Mack” Sparks' best friends from Alton, Kansas. They moved to Salina and raised a family.

But she always missed Mack.

Sparks and his crew's B-24D Liberator crashed into a mountainside in heavy thunderstorms during a midnight run on March 5, 1944. Sparks last saw his son as a three-day-old infant.

“He was very abstract to us,” said Doug Sparks, who now lives in suburban Denver. Karen Hendrickson, who lives in Rancho Mirage, California, said, “We didn't know a lot about his early life.”

They were never sure of how his life ended, either.

“I always assumed the plane went down over the water,” Doug Sparks said. “My mother assumed they went down in the forest. She'd say, ‘Wouldn't the trees grow into the plane and leave the remnants there?' ”

Recovering the missing

Larry Greer, a retired Air Force officer now part of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, said the mountain crash never would have happened with today's technology,  which does a much better job of tracking planes and their surroundings.

Not only did the primitive avionics make planes tougher to guide, less advanced technology meant many crash sites were unknown, he said.

About 500 military and civilian scientists and archaeologists work for the Hawaii-based laboratory. The lab sends out teams of 10 to 15 people when they receive reports of possible remains of World War II, Korean or Vietnam War veterans.

The teams have recovered more World War II missing than any other conflict, with more than 300 sets of remains found. That's largely due to numbers: Of America's 88,000 missing soldiers, 78,000 are from World War II.

After Sparks' plane was first discovered in 1989, three lab excavation teams spent one year recovering the crash remains for forensic testing. Positive identifications of crew members took most of the next decade. The Sparks family learned Mack was found in 1999, two years after Lester Mertz died.

Doug Sparks thinks they should have known sooner.

“It would have been nice for my mother to have known when my stepfather was still alive,” he said.

Greer said identification is complicated, and the laboratory exercises caution.

“When we find a site, we have to match our information with records from the 1940s. Some of those don't exist anymore,” he said.

“Then we look for relatives. Well, an address from 1943 often isn't current.”

When relatives of crew members are found, they're often asked to give DNA samples to help identify remains. Lab
testing is time-consuming, and the backlog of three wars can be years-long.

Finally, Greer said, testers don't notify relatives until near-certainty because false alarms are too upsetting.

“You don't want to tell someone we made a mistake,” he said.

Burying the dead

Once an investigation is complete, the remains are turned over to family members for burial. The identified remains can be minuscule — in Sparks' case, dog tags and bones from his arm and leg.

Most missing are buried in hometown cemeteries. But Karen Hendrickson said her family decided an Arlington burial, with other crew members, was more appropriate.

“He was with his crew all these years,” she said. “It seemed he should stay with them.”

Greer called the Sparks recovery effort a “notable success.” But as more widows and friends of World War II veterans die, recovery efforts are intensifying.

In recent years the lab has assigned two more teams full-time to World War II recovery. It also puts the Korea teams on World War II duty during the half-year they aren't allowed into North Korea by its government.

“It's our motto that we do this until the job is done,” Greer said.

And for Violet Mertz, that job was completed Thursday.

Mertz said she became reconciled to her husband's death many years ago. But to have a ceremony at Arlington with a color guard, a sermon and “Taps” gives her, nearly 60 years later, a chance to finally say a fitting goodbye.

“See how wonderful this is?” she said, dabbing tears from her eyes. “I never dared hope to see this day.”

From a contemporary press report:

DNA brings WWII vet home
Howard woman helps identify missing brother

HOWARD, WISCONSIN — 29 September 2001: Mack Sparks, co-pilot on a B-24D named “Cold Iron,” took off from his base in New Guinea with nine other men in March 1944. They never returned.

Almost 60 years later, his family is preparing to bury his remains in Arlington National Cemetery.

One of his sisters, Jerry Kuehl of Howard, played an important role in bringing her brother home.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” said Kuehl, who grew up in Kansas. “I always wanted to know what happened to him, whether he was lost in the jungle, a prisoner, or if the plane exploded. There was always that in the background — What happened?”

The airplane and remains were found more than a decade ago, but recent DNA testing provided a conclusive link for the family.

Kuehl, who moved to Howard from Gillett with her husband, Armin, seven years ago, provided the DNA sample needed to positively identify the remains of her brother. The family learned of the identification about a month ago.

“It was a relief, but it brought back memories,” Kuehl said. “Not so much me, because I was so young, but of what the family went through. I saw what it had done to my family.”

Her donation to the identification process was blood containing the family’s DNA, which is the basis of heredity.

To identify Sparks’ remains, the military needed a sample from his mother’s bloodline.

“Good-looking guy”

Kuehl has several photos of her brother in the service.

One shows him dressed in his uniform and standing next to a backyard barbecue, a passenger car in the background. Others show him with crew members, one by the tail of a B-24 with a skull and bombs arranged like the Jolly Roger. Yet another shows Sparks with a crew outside another B-24 named “Reluctant Liz.”

He was a Second Lieutenant when he disappeared in the South Pacific.

She was 12 when her brother didn’t come home, but Kuehl, 69, holds fond memories of the time she spent with Sparks.

“It was a relief, but when I read these articles, it makes me cry,” she said. “I didn’t really know my brother that well, but I remember when he came home and had his uniform on I always wanted him to walk down the street with me and hold my hand.

“He was such a good-looking guy, and I was so proud of him,” she said. “I was hoping everyone would drive by so they could see.”

Kuehl said she feels especially bad for Sparks’ widow, Violet Mertz, who had a young daughter and son when her husband was declared missing.

“She really needed the closure. … I was so happy for her that there would be a closure to it, that she would know,” Kuehl said.

Doug Sparks, Mack Sparks’ son, said finding the aircraft and crew ended decades of speculation about what happened.

“It was (finding) the plane and the crew, that was the closure,” he said. “I think the unknown questions in the minds of my mom and two aunts was, ‘What happened?’ And when they found the plane they all of sudden know what happened.”

Doug Sparks, 57, said his mother eventually married one of Mack Sparks’ friends, Lester Mertz, and he and his sister enjoyed a good life growing up.

He now lives in Littleton, Colorado. His sister is in California, and his mother resides in Kansas.

Memories won’t stop

“Cold Iron” — loaded with fuel and bombs — flew into the side of a mountain, Doug Sparks said.

Mack Sparks’ dog tags, the aircraft tail section, and other personal artifacts found at the site — in conjunction with the DNA testing — provide added evidence that these are the correct remains.

“I’ve actually seen the dog tags,” Doug Sparks said. “So that was comforting.”

Mack is expected to be buried with the rest of the crew. It is not certain when that will happen.

For Kuehl, the fact she could help the family by providing a blood sample has provided a bright spot in a sad story.

“I was happy that I could really contribute something, because I was so young and was never really a part that suffered as much as the rest of them,” she said.

“It won’t stop the memories, but it is a closure,” she said.

Edward M. Sparks

Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces
319th Bomber Squadron, 90th Bomber Group, Heavy
Entered the Service from: Kansas
Died: January 25, 1946 (Officially Declared)
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery
Manila, Philippines
Awards: Air Medal, Purple Heart

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