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Bulletin Staff Writer
1ST LT. EUGENE FORDA Derry Township pilot lost when the B-24 bomber he was piloting went down in the Adriatic Sea during World War II is coming home nearly 74 years after his final mission.
U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Eugene Ford will be laid to rest next month in Arlington National Cemetery beside the son he never met, a Vietnam War veteran.
Ford, 21, was piloting the lead aircraft, a B-24J known as The Tulsamerican, as part of the 765th Bombardment Squadron, 461st Bombardment Group, 15th Air Force, during his final mission on Dec. 17, 1944. The Tulsamerican was the last B-24 off the production line at the Douglas Aircraft Co. in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The bomber was funded by war bonds sponsored by workers at the plant, who designed artwork on the nose of the plane and signed their names to it.
Ford was accompanied by a crew of nine other service members, and was leading a group of six B-24s from the squadron in a combat bombing mission targeting oil refineries at Odertal, Germany.
“The mission was expected to be difficult and the distance to Odertal and back would take the B-24s of the 461st to the maximum limits of their fuel range,” according to a report from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
When the bombers came out of a cloud bank approaching their target, they were attacked by more than 40 German Me- 109 and FW-190 fighter aircraft. Three of the B-24s were shot down and the other three damaged.
The Tulsamerican suffered heavy damage and Ford was forced to abort the mission.
According to military records, Ford knew from the damage to the aircraft he would be unable to get back to Italy and opted to try to reach the Isle of Vis, Yugoslavia (present-day Croatia), to attempt an emergency landing.
The Tulsamerican’s landing gear didn’t lock into position on the first pass around the island, and on the second attempt, the B-24’s two remaining engines ran out of fuel, forcing Ford to put the aircraft down in the Adriatic Sea. Seven of the Tulsamerican’s crew members survived the crash and were rescued. Ford, 1st Lt. Russell C. Landry and Technical Sergeant Charles E. Priest did not survive the crash landing and their bodies were not recovered, according to military reports.
Members of the American Graves Registration Service in 1947 searched the coastline of Italy and Yugoslavia to search for American remains and recommended Ford’s remains be considered non-recoverable in 1949.
A diver discovered aircraft debris off the Isle of Vis in December 2009 and contacted the Croatian Conservation Institute, which sent two dive expeditions in early 2010 to document the wreckage. A third expedition uncovered a data plate that helped identify the wreckage as that of the Tulsamerican, leading to the eventual recovery mission in July 2017.
The recovery team from Lund University in Sweden and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute cooperated with the Croatian Navy and was supervised by an archaeologist contracted by the DPAA.
The international team’s investigation of the plane’s wreckage and recovery of Ford’s remains will be featured on “NOVA: Last B-24,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, on PBS.
After Ford’s remains were recovered, the DPAA used mitochondrial DNA from his relatives to confirm his identity.
Ford still has relatives living in the area, including Marlene Carns of Derry Township, Ford’s cousin. Carns has kept in touch with Ford’s daughter, Norma Beard, who lives in the state of Indiana.
“I just remember as a kid I knew that he was dead, but I didn’t know any of the particulars or anything like that,” Carns said. “The parents and grandparents on my father’s side of the family are all dead now. Whenever this started, this was a whole new history lesson for me.”
Carns said her father and Ford’s mother were siblings, and she was contacted about providing a DNA sample before learning only DNA from specific relatives would work for the identification purposes because men can’t pass mitochondrial DNA on to their offspring and Ford was an only child.
“I contacted them, but they needed my aunt’s sister’s DNA. They couldn’t get the DNA from the brother’s (side),” Carns said. “I didn’t qualify, but I’m in touch with a cousin in Ohio, his mother’s sister’s child, and that’s how they identified him was with her DNA as well as his daughter’s and his son’s.”
Beard’s attempts to learn more about the father she met only once, when she was three months old, were complicated.
“My dad’s service records were destroyed in a massive fire at the National Archives record center in St. Louis in 1973,” she said, “which is part of the reason it’s taken me so long to find out what I know about him.”
Her late brother, Richard Stanton Ford, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and died in 2008 just before his 63rd birthday.
In January, DPAA representatives delivered the news to Beard that the remains recovered from the crash site were her father’s, and presented her with the gold wedding band recovered from the wreckage. Ford was the only married man on the Tulsamerican’s crew.
Ford had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941 shortly after graduating from Derry Township High School.
“His ambition in life was to learn to fly, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to do that,” Beard said of her father.
Ford studied to be a B-24 mechanic, then applied for pilot training.
He married his high school sweetheart, Marian McMillen Ford, in Nashville, Tennessee, almost immediately after completing flight training nearby in 1943, as aviation cadets weren’t allowed to marry until finishing training, Beard said.
“She was in the band, he liked appearing in the school plays,” Beard said of her parents. “Typical teenagers of the time, going to proms together and hanging out with friends.”
Ford flew his 29th combat mission on his 21st birthday, May 29, 1944, Beard said, and had completed 40 combat missions before he was sent home on leave. It was then that he saw his daughter for the first time around September 1944. His son was born about nine months later.
Ford was called back to Europe after the short leave, tasked with flying at least 10 more combat missions. The aborted bombing of the refineries in Odertal was his 44th combat mission.
Ford’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Italy, an American Battle Monuments Commission site. The DPAA announced a rosette would be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Beard said her father’s remains will be placed in the same niche at Arlington as her brother’s. Before his passing, Richard had developed an interest in learning more about his father’s fate and asked Beard that if their father’s remains were found that they be interred at Arlington.
Beard plans to attend the Dec. 4 ceremony along with Richard’s sons and other relatives.