DENNIS TOWNSHIP — Fred Little had a good reason to attend National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday at the Ocean View Service Area — a renewed focus on finding missing soldiers helped him find his long-lost brother.
Little, 78, of Ocean City, was just 10 years old the last time he saw his brother alive. U.S. Marine Air Corps Sgt. John Little was lost over Papua New Guinea in 1944 when the B-24 he served on as navigator and bombardier was shot down while bombing a Japanese airfield.
A farmer plowing a field in 2005 uncovered human remains and airplane parts but it was recognition about what he was looking at, and scientific advances MIA investigators now have at their disposal, that led to a positive outcome. The remains were identified using DNA testing in 2006 and properly laid to rest at the family cemetery in Norristown, Pa., in 2007.
“Fred Little was little when his brother went off to war. Sixty three years later he was returned home for proper burial. That did not happen by accident,” said Bill Shaw of American Legion Post 524 from Ocean City, which organized the ceremony.
Speaking before about 200 people, most of them veterans, here at the war memorial between the northbound and southbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway, Little said the first key was that the farmer, clearing to plant trees, had a good idea of what he had uncovered.
“He knew what to do,” Little said.
He called the right people. The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, were called in. The Vietnam War renewed interest in those missing in action, 83,000 at last count, including 73,000 of the 79,000 missing when World War II ended.
There are still plenty of families out there grieving, but some are now at peace.
“It brought closure,” Little said.
Friday’s event was marked with speeches, patriotic songs and an F-16 flyover from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing out of Atlantic City International Airport.
“We are here not to celebrate this day but to remember it for comrades not here anymore. They will never be forgotten,” said Robert Marzulli, commander of American Legion Post 524.
The national POW/MIA Day, which began in 1979 amid concerns for more than 16,000 soldiers missing from Vietnam, also includes a symbolic setting of a table, which represented the missing solider. Jack Hagan, also of Post 524, explained the significance of each item on the table, from the salt representing the tears of the families left behind to the single red rose signifying blood shed in sacrifice.
“We are constantly mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace has always been tainted by the bitterness of sacrifice,” Hagan said.
The ceremony also included singing patriotic songs such as “God Bless America,” the playing of Tags and a bagpiper.
Shaw said that while many military personnel are still missing, DPMO and JPAC have had a number of successes led partly by DNA testing.
“They have found remains at 16,000 feet in the Himalayas, in the ocean depths and in the dense jungles. They do a nice job,” Shaw said.
Politics often comes in the way. Shaw recounted a case where remains were found in western Hungary in 2004 but he said it took years of negotiations with the Russians to get them back. The widow of the serviceman died before they were returned.
“His wife got the news ‘missing in action.’ It’s a terrible phrase. I don’t know how you could cope with that. (She) decided he was coming home,” Shaw said.
She was notified in 2004 that her husband’s remains were found, but by the time they were returned and reburied in Iowa in 2011 she had died. A daughter, four grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren attended the funeral.
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