Airman's remains recovered

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
Wreckage discovered decades after other remains buried

Published Sunday, Jan 22, 2006

On Sept. 13, 1944, 20-year-old turret gunner Wesley Stuart of French Camp was shot down in his three-man Avenger bomber as it pounded Japanese positions in a desperate battle over a speck of a Pacific island called Peleliu.

Neither Stuart's body, crew mates nor aircraft were ever found.

Now, after more than 60 years, Stuart's remains finally may be coming home to his Stockton sister, Mary Roberts, and his other family.

The twist is that the Navy already sent what it thought were Stuart's remains home once, in 1948.

The remains were not positively identified. So the family had doubts. Still, they held services. They entombed the remains in a French Camp mausoleum. The crypt bears Stuart's name.

"I was overwhelmed," stammered Roberts, 74. "I mean, I - I just couldn't even think, you know? After 61 years to have this happen. My mind was just - it was mind-boggling."

Wesley Raymond Stuart was a fun-loving cowboy. Lanky, 6-foot-1 and blue-eyed, he rode bucking broncos in Oakdale rodeos. He played guitar and sang. He courted his sweetheart, Virginia. And he worked in the family's nursery.

On the day of his death, his Avenger took off from the carrier Enterprise for a pre-invasion bombing of Peleliu in the western-most cluster of the Caroline Islands.

Shortly afterward, 12-year-old Mary and her parents came home to find a note on their door. At Western Union, they got the news.

"My mother started screaming and fell on the sidewalk," Roberts recalled. Her father also was devastated. "He just lost interest in everything."

Four years later, the Navy notified the family Stuart's remains had been found. To the Stuart family, however, the evidence was sketchy. They gave the remains a decent burial anyway.

Roberts recalls her mother saying philosophically, "Well, it's somebody's son. I will take care of him."

Not knowing the truth meant never having closure. "When you lose someone in a war," Roberts said, "it's not like 60 years ago. It's as real today as it was then. Your hurt is still there."

Enter Patrick Scannon. Chief scientific and medical officer for a Bay Area biotech company, Scannon has a unique avocation: the BentProp Project.

BentProp searches "the waters and jungles of the western Pacific" seeking wreck sites and remains to identify. Scannon learned of the crash site years ago. His early explorations yielded no identifying clues.

Scannon and his team hiked up a steep jungle ridge on Peleliu's north end. Halfway up, they found crash debris: a smashed engine, a bullet-riddled propeller, part of a crumpled cockpit.

"We spent a long time to figure out it had been shedding debris for a mile behind it," Scannon said of the falling plane. "We went deep into the jungles. We found a debris trail."

Among the debris was a twisted vertical stabilizer bearing the plane's number. A few laptop keystrokes, and Scannon's database identified Avenger and its MIA crew. "It took us three seasons to figure out the whole thing."

Scannon believes Stuart's plane was struck by withering anti-aircraft fire, possibly while diving furiously on a bombing run. It caught on fire, possibly exploded. The crew did not get out. The burning plane smashed into the jungle slope. The jungle in the seldom-explored area held its secret.

Scannon identified the likely site of the crew's remains and reported it to the Department of Defense. A forensic recovery division called the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, sent experts.

The altruistic Scannon accompanied three coffins to a Honolulu base.
He also visited Roberts. "There are so few ways we can thank the members of the armed forces and their families," he said. "It's a very special thing when we can finally meet the family members of some of the MIAs who are now no longer MIAs."

Roberts is deeply grateful to Scannon for the long-delayed closure over her brother's death.

"If it wasn't for him," she said of Scannon, "we could never have known if his plane was found."

Roberts' father died in 1985, her mother in '92. They never knew.

There's only one loose end: if, as expected, the remains found on Peleliu are those of Wesley Stuart, whose remains are entombed in his French Camp crypt?

Roberts doesn't know what she or the government ought to do about that. "I'm still kind of confused," she admitted.

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