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'Rest easy, Lieutenant': WWII pilot from Derry Township is finally coming home

Deb Erdley
| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, 11:34 p.m.
Members of the recovery team attach a POW flag to the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a B-24 Liberator piloted by Lt. Eugene P. Ford, a Derry Township native, when it crashed into the Adriatic Sea in 1944.
Members of the recovery team attach a POW flag to the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a B-24 Liberator piloted by Lt. Eugene P. Ford, a Derry Township native, when it crashed into the Adriatic Sea in 1944.
Lt. Eugene P. Ford, a Derry Township native, in Foggia, Italy, in 1944.
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Lt. Eugene P. Ford, a Derry Township native, in Foggia, Italy, in 1944.
Croatian navy ships are anchored on July 8, 2017, in the waters near the Adriatic island of Vis, where divers located human bones near the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a U.S. bomber, that crashed in 1944.
Croatian navy ships are anchored on July 8, 2017, in the waters near the Adriatic island of Vis, where divers located human bones near the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a U.S. bomber, that crashed in 1944.
A serviceman looks at a screen during an underwater mission on July 8, 2017, in the waters near the Adriatic island of Vis, Croatia. Divers located human bones near the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a U.S. bomber, that crashed in 1944. The plane was the last B-24 Liberator bomber built in Tulsa, Okla., near the end of World War II. (Croatian Ministry of Defense via AP)
A serviceman looks at a screen during an underwater mission on July 8, 2017, in the waters near the Adriatic island of Vis, Croatia. Divers located human bones near the wreckage of the Tulsamerican, a U.S. bomber, that crashed in 1944. The plane was the last B-24 Liberator bomber built in Tulsa, Okla., near the end of World War II. (Croatian Ministry of Defense via AP)
Servicemen retrieve remains from the underwater site where the wreckage of the Tulsamerican was located.
Servicemen retrieve remains from the underwater site where the wreckage of the Tulsamerican was located.

His last mission in World War II was piloting a B-24 Liberator in a bombing run on the second day of the Battle of the Bulge. Nearly 74 years later, that Derry Township airman is finally returning home.

The remains of 1st Lt. Eugene P. Ford will be interred Dec. 4 in Arlington National Cemetery along with the ashes of Vietnam veteran Richard Stanton Ford, the son the young pilot never met.

Lt. Ford’s homecoming is courtesy of an international scientific expedition including the Department of Defense, the Croatian Navy, a team of the world’s top underwater archaeologists and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s forensic anthropology lab in Hawaii. His story and their work will be recounted Nov. 7 on PBS’ “NOVA: Last B-24.”

Ford was 21 and flying his 44th combat mission when he died in December 1944 piloting a bomber known as the Tulsamerican. The plane was the last B-24 to roll off the production line at the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Tulsa, Okla. It was paid for with war bonds, sponsored by workers at the plant.

They designed artwork on the nose of the plane and signed their names to it.

For years, officials at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum followed leads about the city’s namesake bomber.

According to military records, the Tulsamerican was the lead bomber in a group of six B-24s that participated in a mission targeting oil refineries at Odertal, Germany, on Dec. 17, 1944.

“Coming out of a cloud bank near the target, the aircraft were attacked by more than 40 German Me-109 and FW-190 fighters,” the Defense Department reported. “The unit suffered heavy losses, with three of their six aircraft shot down and the other three damaged.

“The Tulsamerican sustained heavy damage, forcing Ford to abort the mission and crash-land in the Adriatic Sea, near the Isle of Vis in present-day Croatia. Seven crew members of the aircraft survived, and were rescued; however, three, including Ford, were killed in the crash.”

In 2010, Croatian divers discovered the wreck about 130 feet underwater, near Vis. A serial number on the rusting hulk buried in silt on the ocean floor identified it as the Tulsamerican. That finding launched a series of events that culminated in a 19-day recovery mission in July 2017.

Underwater archaeologist Brendan Foley of Lund University in Sweden led the mission. He said the team was under strict orders not to disturb objects on the sea floor because Croatia considers the aircraft wreckage a national historic monument.

They received permission to recover human remains and a parachute that was found pinned beneath the sea floor and the propeller blade of the plane’s No. 2 engine. Ultimately, the parachute would be photographed and placed back on the wreckage.

“We uncovered the remains at the pilot’s position, around and under his armored seat backing,” the archaeologist said. “We recovered a Mae West life preserver and a flight boot with uniform shoe inside, and then our excavation revealed the remains of Lt. Ford.”

Last week, Foley recounted his reaction at that discovery.

“I reassured him, ‘Rest easy, Lieutenant. We’re going to take good care of you. We’re here to bring you home,’ ” Foley recalled.

Neither Tulsamerican flight engineer Charles E. Priest nor navigator Russell C. Landry was found. It is unclear whether there will be additional missions to recover the men who remain among the 82,000 Americans still missing from all conflicts since World War II.

Shortly after Foley made his discovery, Norma Ford Beard, 74, the pilot’s only surviving child, heard that the father she lost as an infant might finally be coming home.

“I’d heard rumors. We knew this was going on,” Beard said from her home near Indianapolis.

It would take five months before she learned it was indeed her father whose remains had been recovered.

During that time, scientists in Hawaii, at the world’s largest forensic lab, diligently worked on the case.

They needed to match mitochondrial DNA from a survivor to determine whether it was Ford whose remains had been recovered. Men cannot pass such genetic material on to their offspring, and Eugene Ford was an only child. So officials had to locate one of his mother’s sister’s children to obtain a DNA sample.

They eventually found Betty Rochester in Ohio, a cousin Beard didn’t know existed. Rochester provided the DNA that verified the remains as Ford.

In January, DPAA officials called on Beard. They presented her with her father’s gold wedding band, which had been found among his remains.

“He was the only married man on the crew,” she said, recalling the ceremony last winter.

A crew from NOVA was along to record the emotional moment when government representatives made their presentation “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

Beard grew up with her mother and stepfather in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties. She knew very little about Ford. She was told that she saw him once when he was home on leave. She was 3 months old. Nine months later, her brother Richard was born.

“We were 361 days apart,” she said.

Marian McMillen Ford, widowed at 21 with two small children, spoke little of the decorated young pilot who died in the war.

Beard said she knew her parents grew up on farms in Derry Township and attended elementary and high school together.

Ford enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December 1941, hoping to become a test pilot.

The young sweethearts married in the summer of 1943 after Ford completed cadet pilot training.

When Beard began searching online 21 years ago to learn more about her father, she quickly heard from several veterans who had served with him.

They told her Ford, who first was a B-24 mechanic, got his shot at becoming a pilot because of his knowledge of the machine and his hard work. He became a highly respected pilot, with a crew of nine airmen the day the Tulsamerican went down.

Along the way, Beard developed a deep respect for the men who served with her father. She marvels at their bravery and the kindnesses they extended to her.

And she wonders about the brave young father who left a farm in Derry Township to fly bombers in World War II.

“It was all so random who lived and who died,” Beard said. “He wanted to be a test pilot. Who knows, if he had lived he might have become an astronaut.”

She plans to attend the ceremony in Arlington in December. Her brother’s two sons, who live in Long Island and Virginia Beach, also plan to attend along with Betty Rochester and her grandchildren, and several cousins form the Blairsville area.

Beard said her brother Richard, who retired from the Navy after 20 years with two tours of duty in Vietnam, developed a keen interest in his father’s fate. Richard Ford died in 2008.

“He asked me if they ever found our father that I would see that he be buried at Arlington. I promised him that,” Beard said. “Their ashes will be in the same niche in Arlington.”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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