Family lays to rest WWII airman lost over Himalayas

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA

Published: March 5th, 2006 02:30 AM

From his base deep in northern India, Gerard Rugers Jr., wrote the letter that would be sent home to his family if he were to die or go missing.
It was World War II, and he was a 24-year-old radio operator and private first class in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He flew the treacherous Hump missions over the Himalayas from India to China and back again that between 1942 and 1945 would claim more than 1,000 U.S. fliers.

Over seven tender pages, he shared his fears, his sense that a good life was there for him if he made it back home, and his regret that if his family were reading these words, he would not be there to see that life through.

These last few years, these hopes showed the first faint glimmering of fulfillment, Rugers wrote. Its true that this war may have terminated the hopes of some, but these are only fragments of the whole. There are others to carry on.

A little bit of that world he left behind 62 years ago came together again Saturday, as his family and friends gathered at Cavalry Cemetery to finally lay him to rest at home in Tacoma.

Rugers had been missing and presumed dead since March 27, 1944. His remains were identified last fall after a U.S. military forensics team trekked to the long-hidden crash site along the Tibetan frontier.

Most of his family passed away long ago, and went to their graves believing an Army Air Corps colonels claim that Gerard had received a military burial in India soon after his plane went down. Only in the course of the last few years did relatives learn that story was a mysterious fabrication.

But on Saturday, his sister Frances Lusier at 87 his last surviving sibling was there to see his proper burial with military honors, right next to his mother and his father. Nieces and nephews gathered, too, and old friends. The woman he planned to marry was there to remember the young love they shared.

A Fort Lewis honor guard fired rifle volleys, played taps and performed the ritual unfolding and folding of the flag. It was presented to his sister on behalf of a grateful nation.

This day is long overdue, said Capt. Dale Goetz, an Army chaplain.

Lusier, whose memories of her brother have been dimmed by Alzheimers disease, still keeps a handsome portrait of him in uniform on the mantel of her Proctor District home.

Everybody loved him that knew him, she said.

Phyllis Johnson her name back then was Markota was his sweetheart. He attended Lincoln High School, and she Stadium, and they worked together at a Sixth Avenue movie theater.

He was the manager of the place, but he didnt push anybody around, recalled Johnson, now 82. “He didnt make any advances or anything like that, but he just decided that he'd like to take me out.

We dated and got to the point where we decided to become a little more serious, and then when he went into the Army it got more serious still, she said. We decided to get married when he got back.

Learning that he wouldnt return was devastating. But time passed. She married, raised a family, mourned the passing of her husband. Rugers niece, Andrea Cook, tracked her down and let her know about the discovery in Tibet.

It does bring back some things, she said. I had a happy marriage. But it was my second love.


Rugers long journey home began in May 2000, when the Chinese government sent a team to investigate villagers reports of a crash site on Meiduobai Mountain in Tibet. The team found wreckage of a U.S. C-46 Commando, tail number 124688.

The following January, the Chinese reported their findings to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The information reached the militarys Prisoner of War/Missing in Action office, where officials quickly determined it was the C-46 that had been lost with Rugers and three others aboard back in 1944.

A 14-member team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii known by the acronym JPAC made an expedition to the crash site in July and August 2002. The command and its predecessor agencies for decades have searched crash sites and battlefields around the world to find some of the 88,000 military men and women still listed as missing or unaccounted for in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts.

The trek into the Himalayas was one of their most arduous recovery missions, said James Pokines, a JPAC anthropologist who made the trip.

The team hiked 14 days through mountain valleys, across streams and up steep terrain, and made camp at 15,500 feet about 1,100 feet higher than the summit of Mount Rainier.

Just climbing from our little cluster of tents the 300 feet or so up to the site took like 10 minutes, it was so exhausting because of the altitude, Pokines said.

The harsh Tibetan winters had destroyed most of the bones. They found mostly fragments, the anthropologist said.

When team members returned to the JPAC lab at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, they sought DNA samples from surviving family members and got to work trying to identify the remains.

By last October, they concluded some of the bones were those of Rugers and one other crew member, Pokines said.

The mission to supply U.S. and Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in China was the U.S. militarys first great airlift operation, but it came at a price. The route over the Himalayas bore the grim nickname, The Aluminum Trail.

Rugers C-46 was one of more than 600 U.S. aircraft that crashed or were shot down flying in the China-Burma-India theater.

It appeared Rugers plane crashed straight into a cliff, perhaps out of fuel, since there was no evidence of a fire, Pokines said. It was many miles off course, and traveling northbound the wrong direction.

I suspect that kind of thing happened all the time, the anthropologist said. When we were there, the heavy clouds would roll in in the afternoons. You cant see anything. There are plenty of things to hit.

You get lost in the clouds, what are you going to do?

a telegram and letters

The War Department notified Rugers parents, Collette and Gerard Sr., by telegram five days after the crash that their son was missing, and followed up by letter five days later. More letters followed in June, July and October, with little additional information, and in January 1946 the War Department wrote to inform the Rugers that their son was presumed dead.

Then, in August of that year, they received a letter from a Lt. Col. Byron K. Enyart, who said he was the executive officer of the Sookerating air base in India where Rugers had been stationed.

In explicit detail, Enyart described how he personally searched for the crash site and found the wreckage on an island in the nearby Brahmaputra River, not far from the base on the very same day the craft vanished.

He wrote that he found the crewmen dead inside the wrecked aircraft and buried them in temporary graves. He said he returned days later despite difficult conditions a native guide drowned on the trip, Enyart said and that he and the units quartermaster and chaplain gave the downed airmen a military burial.

I have made some 25 searches throughout the Sahara Desert area and the Hump and I assure you I remember this case specifically due to my own experience and the fact that I knew Private Rugers quite well,” the lieutenant colonel wrote.

But the account raised suspicions at the office of the War Departments inspector general. Investigators summoned Enyart to Washington, D.C., where his story fell apart under questioning. They learned he’d even been in the hospital with malaria at the time of the purported second trip up the river.

The inspector general determined there was no evidence to substantiate any part of Enyarts story, other than the date of the planes disappearance. And in 1948, the military determined that the four crewmens remains were likely unrecoverable.

Military officials today are at a loss to explain why Enyart who went on to serve as a White House military aide in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations would make up the tale, except perhaps as a misguided attempt to bring a sense of closure to the Rugers family.

But word that it was a fabrication apparently never reached the downed radiomans loved ones in Tacoma.


Growing up, there were competing versions about what happened to Uncle Gerard, said Cook, his niece. She is Frances Lusiers daughter, born two weeks before Gerard was killed.

There were conflicting stories, Cook said. In one, he was shot down. In another, he ran into a mountain. In another, his plane crashed into another plane.

The versions faded into family lore. His parents passed away his father in 1955, his mother in 1960 and mostly, people just remembered how much they loved and missed him.

Especially my mother, Cook said. They were the two youngest, and they were very close.

And then Cook got a call from the Pentagons casualty office in 2003, asking if she or others from her family would be willing to give a blood sample for use as DNA evidence.

It was all pretty shocking, she said.

She said shes still not sure shell ever know exactly what happened to her uncles airplane, but one thing is certain: His remains were found, and hes come home.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Brass from Fort Lewis has worked with the family since last October, helping them with the funeral arrangements and other details. He was on hand Friday to greet Cook on her arrival from her home in San Diego, and go over last-minute details.

He smiled as she and her sons, Troy and Tim, talked about the cousins and old friends who would be there at the funeral the next day people they hadnt seen in decades, and some theyd never met.

Your uncle is bringing the whole family back together, Brass said, even after all these years.

Rugers appeared to have foreseen that in his just in case letter.

He expressed his love for his family and friends, his recognition that there is much good and kindness in everyone, even the enemy, and his hope that some good would come from the war.

And dearest mom and dad, and everyone, he concluded, though I am with you in spirit only, I am ever waiting. And some day we shall be together again and then in truth we shall share the happiness weve dreamed of.

Ever and always, your loving Gerard.

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