26 June 2015

'Restored Honor': A World War II Pilot's Long Road Home

It was in the middle of the burial ceremony for Lt. John W. Herb when a commercial airline roared overhead and among the dozens of family members, it was perhaps the most unlikely guest who felt the sting of nostalgia.

The sound took Manfred Romer back to April 13, 1945, when as a 5-year-old he heard a plane flying just a few hundred feet over his head. He watched it catch fire before disappearing out of view and crashing close to his home in Amt Neuhaus, Germany.

“There was a huge plume of smoke,” Romer told ABC News through a translator. “So this is something that just burned in my memory.”

That memory would stick with Romer until after his retirement, when he decided to return to his old home to find out what happened to that plane, and more importantly he said, the pilot inside.

Just a year later, Romer would find himself in Arlington National Cemetery, standing alongside the pilot’s relatives in a moment seven decades in the making, at what would be the young lieutenant’s final resting place.

“For me it is a very moving day,” Romer said. “Not just today, but all of the days that led up to today.”

Herb’s story is similar to the thousands of other American soldiers still deemed “missing in action” during WW2. Because he had no wife and children, with time the family moved on.

“This took me completely by surprise,” said Michael Herb, John’s cousin. “I mean, we knew of Jon, we knew his plane was lost. But we thought he was gone forever. We never thought that we would ever see him or hear of him again.”

A little over a year ago, Herb’s family was entirely unaware that a German man thousands of miles away was quickly piecing an intricate puzzle together to try and locate the body of their relative.

A breakthrough happened, Romer says, when he met two 85-year-old women who remembered the crash in great detail and actually arrived on the scene soon after Herb’s plane went down.

The women had documented the incident, writing that they came upon the scene of the wreckage and Herb was alive. But they said he was soon shot and thrown in a shallow grave.

“When there is war, many people lose their honor. Their honor is stolen from them,” Romer said. “It was my great wish to restore honor to this man.”

Romer said he gathered one of his sons and several grandchildren and began scouring 50,000 square meters of forest with a metal detector. They found more than 200 pieces of the plane.

He soon contacted German authorities, who reached out to the U.S. Department of Defense. In June of last year, members of the Missing Allied Air Crew Recovery Team (MAACRT) and the Army’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) accompanied Romer as he led them to the scene of the crash.

While a typical remains identifying process usually spans months or even years, at one point in the search the team found a ring they were able to see had the initials “JWH” engraved inside. It was Herb’s class ring from Riverside Military Academy.

The remains discovered were then sent to a military base in Hawaii where the dental records gave final confirmation, Herb had returned to American soil for the first time in 70 years.

On Thursday, Herb was buried with full military honors, including an escort platoon, colors team, casket team, firing party and a band.

“I was very emotional, and I think that I would be this emotional, to be honest with you, even if he wasn't a member of our family,” Michael said. “I think that watching this for any soldier that has given his life in the defense of the country is moving.”

Romer, in his first trip ever to America, has since become close with several of Herb’s relatives. He said he plans to cowrite a book about his search with Patti Herb, Michael’s wife.

Wally Hood, another cousin of Herb, said he has started exchanging letters with Romer, and has no doubt Herb’s body would never have been found without him.

“[Romer] told me his dad went missing in action in Russia and was never found,” Hood said. “And he said, no family deserves that, and this guy, whoever it is, deserves to have his family find him, and that was his whole mission.”

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