BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Second Lieutenant. Robert R. Keown was on his P-38 aircraft on an airfield after a mission in 1944 when it crashed into a mountain in Papua New Guinea. The second world War ended without Keown’s family know what had happened to him, and the military later declared him dead.
Decades later, a villager found human remains in a swampy area near the mountain. Another inhabitant of the island in the Pacific ocean snapped a picture of the rusted wreck of a warplane year after that.
With all the pieces of the puzzle finally with the help of genetic testing, the remains of the Georgia native and Alabama resident are now back on AMERICAN soil. Family members will gather at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D. C., on Friday afternoon for the long-delayed funeral of Keown (pronounced: Cow-uhn).
“I expect that we will be overwhelmed,” said cousin John Keown, 62, Decatur, Alabama.
The ceremony will be a flag-draped coffin and an honor guard for Keown, who grew up near Atlanta in Lawrenceville, Georgia, before moving to the north Alabama city of Scottsboro. He was 24 and serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the current Air Force, when he died.
Keown remains arrived Thursday in Washington ronald Reagan washington National Airport, said Justin Taylan of Pacific Wrecks , a non-profit contractor to search for the remains of missing service members in cooperation with the Ministry of Defence.
More than 400,000 Americans have died in the second world War, and the Pentagon says nearly 73,000 of them remain missing.
Keown was among that number until November, when the DNA test revealed that skeletal remains found in Papua New Guinea were. That confirmation combined with pictures of the wreck, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to remove Keown of the list of the missing, but it is still unclear what happened in the crash.
“The pilot probably saved, but we don’t know,” said Taylan. “It is impossible to say exactly how he died.”
The Pentagon said that Keown flew one of the four aircraft of the 36th Fighter Squadron, 8th Fighter Group is on a mission to find a missing B-25 bomber when the weather was bad and the fighters on the way to an auxiliary airport on April 16, 1944. Keown was declared missing after the aircraft failed to return. Two other planes also disappeared; Taylan said their pilots remain missing.
The war ended with Keown’s whereabouts still unknown, and the Pentagon declared him dead on Feb. 7, 1946, according to a press release from the Defense. The loss and the uncertainty about his fate were horrible for the family, said John Keown, the son of one of the pilot’s younger brothers.
“There were torn up for a few years not knowing what had happened to him,” he said.
More than 50 years later, in 1999, the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery gave the Army the man remains a farmer had found on his land in the 1980’s and reburied at a village cemetery.
In 2005, Taylan said another man in New Guinea with photos of the plane wreck in the vicinity of the place where the remains were first found. A photo of a serial number that was used to confirm that the aircraft was Keown, Taylan said, and DNA testing of the remains finally tied everything together last year.
John Keown and other nieces and nephews are the closest other relatives, among more than 40 people expected at the pilot of the series. His father died in 1937 and his mother in 1979. Keown, the two brothers also died, the most recent in 2015.
While Keown’s remains will be interred in Arlington, the wreck of his plane on a mountainside where it is found, said Taylan. Keown name is added to a memorial that was previously built in the village in the vicinity of the crash site, he said.
“A boy from Alabama has a monument in Papua New Guinea,” said Taylan.