How This American Hero Finally Came Home
A repatriation story
Before they shipped out to win the war, twin brothers John and George Thomas met their parents in Walla Walla, Washington to say goodbye. The boys were going separate ways, so they posed for one last photograph together.
Only George, who served as an enlisted Marine in the Pacific, made it back alive. John, a B-24 Liberator pilot, was killed in action on the 1st of August, 1943, the darkest day in the history of American military aviation. It has taken him almost 80 years to come home to his family.
Altogether, more than 70,000 American service members from World War II remain unaccounted for. Like John Blakeslee Thomas, more than half of them were in the US Army.
However, it is the US Air Force which oversees DNA testing for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) through its laboratories. John was identified by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, which compared his DNA with two living cousins.
Apart from injuries to the cranium and torso, as well as some missing fingers and toes, John’s skeleton is almost entirely intact. This is somewhat surprising given the total destruction of the aircraft. As I recently explained in the post linked just below, Aire Lobo, John’s B-24, was seen crashing in a ball of fire just after releasing its bomb load on Romania’s largest oil refinery. There were no survivors.
Born in 1920, John enlisted in the family hometown of Rochester, New York on 26 September 1942. Induction records show he was single, with no dependents, and employed as an actor. The house where he lived before the war is apparently still standing.
Declassified in 1973, the official loss report is dated 3 August 1943. The aircraft, engines, and machine guns are all listed along with the missing crew. Where the form asks for the names of individuals with knowledge of the whereabouts of the plane and its crew, or the causes of the loss, the operations officer has typed NOT AVAILABLE.
Altogether, the Romanians recovered and identified 216 dead Americans that day. John was one of 27 Americans they recovered, but did not identify. He was buried in the Bolovan Civilian and Military Cemetary near Ploesti, where he stayed until 2017, when he was exhumed for DNA testing.
While the testing went on, John was reinterred in the second row of the Florence American Cemetery located at Impruneta, Italy. His last sibling had been dead for over a decade. His country was determined to bring him home anyway.
“I was first contacted by the U.S. Army, March 16, 2018 by mail asking me if I would be willing to submit a DNA sample,” my cousin Ed tells me. “ I agreed to do so and I received the test kit and submitted my sample.”
Donna, a second cousin and the oldest living survivor, also submitted a sample. According to records from ADFIL, the match was confirmed on 30 September 2022. “In November of 2022, I again was contacted by the U.S. Army and with that conversation was told that they had positively identified Uncle John,” Ed says. “Wow!”
Since then, Ed has worked with Donna, the official PADD (Person Authorized to Determine Disposition), to arrange the details of the service with the PCRB (Past Conflicts Repatriations Branch). John will find his final rest on 20 May 2023, a little shy of eight decades after his tragic loss.
During the next two weeks, I plan on posting an historical essay about Operation Tidal Wave: how the operation was conceived, carried out, and ended in the disaster that killed John and his crew.
It’s the sort of writing project I relish, but also the kind of work that I have started to put behind a paywall. Writing academic military history is neither easy nor free, just like plane tickets to Rochester.
A whole family felt this trauma for a generation. I shall attend the funeral for John, my own grandmother’s brother, next month with Ed and Donna before I write the final chapter to this story, which will not be paywalled. My heart already aches before the first word is written. Please do subscribe.
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