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Sixty-eight years after crash, closure comes for New Ken family

| Sunday, March 18, 2012

Marilyn Claassen slid her late uncle's gold wedding band onto her finger and started to cry, "It fits. It fits."

The weathered 14-karat ring, slightly misshapen and bearing the inscription, "Helen - Jack 6/20/41," is one of the few vestiges documenting John Daniel "Jack" Yeager's life.

The ring went with him as he left New Kensington to fight World War II. It remained buried for decades on a remote mountainside in the South Pacific and returned Wednesday to family members who spent all or most of their lives wondering what really happened to Yeager during the military training mission that claimed his life.

A Marine Corps airman, Yeager died on April 22, 1944, along with six other crew members when their PBJ-1 fighter plane slammed into a mountain on the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.

"We were initially told the plane crashed into the ocean and everybody drowned," Claassen said.

Claassen, a New Kensington resident, learned last week what really happened.

Joined by her husband, Greg, and brother, Bernie Smith of New Kensington, Claassen sat down at her kitchen table with a Marine Corps contingent to discuss the events that led to the crash, how the recovery effort played out over years and how a DNA sample Claassen provided enabled investigators to identify Yeager's remains.

Series of accidents

Hattie Y. Johnson, Marine Corps head of POW/MIA affairs, said a military investigator drafted a report shortly after the accident detailing the events, but the report was "misplaced." Without it, the corps operated under the assumption the plane crashed into the ocean, explaining why Yeager's family thought his remains were at sea, Johnson said.

According to the official report the corps filed Jan. 24, the old case file "suggests" a search team might have located the crash site on May 13, 1944, although no remains were recovered. The corps declared the seven crew members dead in 1945; in 1948, their remains were deemed "nonrecoverable."

A private expedition began in 1994 to investigate a separate crash on the island unearthed wreckage from Yeager's flight, including human remains.

The Defense Department sent a survey team to Espiritu Santo in 1999. The team located the crash site at an elevation of 2,600 feet in rugged terrain. A year later, a recovery team surveyed the site again, finding more human remains.

From 2009 to 2011, recovery teams excavated the site during three 45-day missions. The excavations yielded the plane engine's data plate, human remains, personal effects, including Yeager's wedding band and an identification tag his wife, Helen King Yeager, gave him.

When handed her uncle's personal ID tag, inscribed with "Love Helen," Claassen said, "This is like really meeting him."

DNA link

Johnson said the crew had embarked on a training flight under stormy conditions so bad, another Marine airman reported at the time, the pilot had difficulty seeing the nose of the plane.

"The weather was terrible -- so bad the guys never should've been cleared for takeoff," Johnson said. "It's believed the weather was the cause of the crash.

Yeager, a corporal, served as a gunner on the plane. Crews that searched the crash site recovered portions of Yeager's right and left thigh bones and a hip bone fragment. They are in Hawaii awaiting shipment home in a casket with a Marine escort. Claassen and her family will decide if Yeager will be buried locally or if he will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Forensic scientists identified Yeager remains by comparing his mitochondrial DNA to Claassen's. That DNA type, which is passed on from the mother, was the only DNA recoverable from the bone fragments.

Claassen's mother, Marion Harkins, was Yeager's sister.

Johnson said crews recovered bone fragments from each Marine on the plane and matched DNA to surviving family members.

HM1 Steve Marsh, a Marine Corps mortician, said common remains that couldn't be identified as any of the crew members' will be buried together under one grave marker at Arlington.

Johnson said the group burial likely will happen in September after she meets with each of the families.

More than 3,000 Marines remain missing from World War II, Johnson said.

Jack Yeager was devoted to serving his country

By all accounts, Jack Yeager was a family favorite who devoted himself to the idea of service to country.

He was born May 6, 1920, to parents Dan and Ann Yeager of New Kensington.

"Jack was a very outgoing individual," said his nephew, Bernie Smith. "From everything we've read, (his parents) adored him."

Smith was five when his uncle died. He said he has spotty but pleasant memories about him, including his trips home on leave when he would tell Smith, "There's something for you in the mailbox.

"I would go to the mailbox, and I'd find a quart of ice cream," Smith said.

Yeager also is survived by niece Marilyn Claassen and nephews Jack Smith of Lower Burrell and Daniel Harkins of Dallas, Texas.

Smith recalled Yeager having a prized possession -- a classic Chevy.

"He would write home and say, 'Are you taking care of my Chevy?'" Smith said. He couldn't recall the model.

Smith said he wanted to research the history of his uncle's war medals and stumbled upon an online post from one of the other surviving family members looking to locate the families of the crew.

"That's how this all got started," he said.

Claassen said her uncle loved his parents and sought to reassure them he'd be OK: "In almost every one of his letters he'd say, 'Don't worry and don't fight -- that's my job.'"

"He loved music -- his favorite song was 'Harbor Lights,'" said Claassen, referring to a song recorded by many artists, most successfully by The Platters in 1960. "That carried on. You'll never walk into any of our houses where there isn't music playing."

As for why he joined the military, Smith and Claassen said their uncle wanted to be a career Marine. He enlisted, they said, and went to lengths to do so, including collecting several reference letters.

"He wanted to be there," Claassen said. "He had a love for his community and the United States."

Additional Information:

Seven airmen died

Seven Marine airmen died on April 22, 1944, in Vanuatu when their fighter plane crashed during a storm. They were:

• Pilot 1st Lt. Laverne A. Lallathin

• Co-pilot 2nd Lt. Dwight D. Ekstam

• 2nd Lt. Walter B. Vincent Jr.

• TSgt. James A. Sisney

• Cpl. Wayne R. Erickson

• Cpl. John Daniel Yeager

• Pfc. John Albert Donovan

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