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Bringing Irvin home

Family holds onto hope that WWII airman’s remains will be identified and brought home soon

By Bill Vossler

Irvin C. Ellingson, went missing at the end of WWII, nearly 80 years ago. The family is still trying to bring him home. Contributed photo

“All it takes,” said Lon Enerson of St. Cloud, “is a little bone fragment, and we’ll have closure.”

That closure would come from identifying the remains of Lon’s uncle, Irvin C. Ellingson, missing from near the end of World War II, almost 80 years ago.

After basic training at Sheppard’s Field in Texas, Irvin received his Army Air Force radar certificate in May 1943 at Chicago, finished an airplane mechanics course in June, and after airplane training, in November, he and 10 other crew members were sent overseas to the island of Saipan. 

“After that,” said Lon, “the B-29 Super Fortress bomber came out, and he trained on that plane as a radar operator. After his 22nd mission, he wrote home to his mother, which is in a scrapbook the family aunts have made, saying, ‘I’m looking to getting back home, and know that it will be difficult because I’ve been gone a few years.” 

If only he knew.

On the nights of April 13 and 14, 1945, 327 B-29s from Saipan and Guam flew 1,500 miles to Tokyo. “They flew all night, and dropped their bombs on Tokyo, and headed toward Trotski, and home. But seven would not make it, including Irvin’s.”

On the way, B-29 bomber K-245, with a large drawing of a woman in a bikini near the front left, was struck twice by anti-aircraft fire. “One of the flight members, Corporal Vance, parachuted out. He was captured and sent to another prison, and after the war he was released. He wrote a statement indicating that before he parachuted everybody in the airplane was in good shape. Five more flight members parachuted out before the airplane exploded, and landed in a rice paddy, where it burned all night.”

Irvin in his high school graduation picture from Dahlen, N.D. high school in 1936. Contributed photo

The next day residents came to look and found that five officers in the airplane had died in the crash. “The other five were captured, and one died at the Tokyo Military Prison at the hands of the Japanese,” Lon said. “And another guy was in poor health, so he died in prison. That left three of them from that B-29, Irvin, Chester Johnson, and William Sutherland.”

Sixty-two Americans were prisoners in Tokyo Military Prison, Lon said. According to later files, Irvin was seen twice coming from the interrogation area back to the prison. 

By coincidence, Irvin’s first cousin was also stationed in Saipan.

“They would get together, and when Irvin was out on a mission, his cousin would stay up until Irvin came home. On that last mission, his cousin stayed up, but Irvin’s B-29 never returned. He wrote Irvin’s mother, saying that Irvin’s airplane didn’t make it back.”

At this time, American bombers were dropping incendiary bombs over Japan, 40 bomb clusters, according to DOD information, and each cluster would explode at 2,500 feet, releasing 38 incendiary bombs that would fall in a random pattern. 

“The last time the incendiary bombs were used in Japan, one struck the wooden Tokyo Military Prison,” Lon said. “Japanese guards opened the cells for Japanese convicts and set them free, but didn’t let the Americans out. So all 62 died in the fire. Including Irvin.”

The Japanese took their bodies and placed them in mattress covers and buried in a mass grave. After the war, the remains were disinterred. 

The Western Union that let the family know that Irvin was missing in action. Contributed photo

“Twenty-five were identified at that time, and sent home for proper burial,” Lon said. “But the other 37, including Irvin, were unidentifiable, and were brought to the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, and buried there in 1949. So we thought it was over.”

“Over the years,” Lon said, “at family reunions, or just talking, we heard about Irvin being missing. When I talked with my grandma, she said ‘He died in the fire, and I suppose all his remains were burned up. We had that in our minds for decade after decade after decade. We all kind of thought with his being caught in the fire, all that would be left was his ashes, and they would have been swept into a shoebox, and thrown away.”

After the war, the five jailers who refused to open the cell doors of the Americans were brought up for war crimes, Lon said. “At first they were all sentenced to death for those war crimes, but then their sentences were commuted to hard labor for the rest of their lives.”

But after getting a letter from Michael Krehl in 2018, who had discovered that a new agency, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) could use DNA to identify bodies and remains, Lon and the rest of the family realized that the bodies could be identified, if bones from Irvin are there. 

Irvin is shown next to the B-29 airplane he was shot down in. Contributed photo

“After Krehl’s grandmother passed, he was looking through things in her attic, when he saw a picture of his grandpa. He said, ‘He looks just like me.’ So that was how he got really interested in it, and eventually discovered that the DPAA would be able to figure out who those bodies and bones were by using DNA--if he could get enough DNA from enough families. That is, 60 percent from 62 families, or from 37 families.”

Using a genealogist, Krehl discovered the information on all 62 families, and contacted them. 

Lon was one of the people who was chosen to give DNA, along with his uncles Dennis and Bud. “I was chosen instead of the siblings because most of them are no longer alive. But Irvin’s brothers, Bud and Dennis (now deceased) were still alive, so the three of us were sent DNA kits from Fort Knox. They came on FedEx, and the results were sent to Dover, Delaware.

One sample is active, which they will use, and the other two are frozen, so as they learn more about DNA down the road, they will be able to use new DNA processes to try to identify remains. I check the website every day to see how things are going,” said Lon.

The problem was the percentage. “If 60 percent of the family and relatives of those 37 men would offer their DNA, the commingled bodies in the caskets in the Manila American Cemetery could be brought to a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) site in Hawaii, so the bones could be tested to see if there were any matches,” he said.

Through letters from Michael Krehl to all 62 families, just under 60 percent were willing. 

Lon Enerson presented information to his relatives at a family reunion. Lon had been told his uncle Irvin died in a Japanese prison at the end of World War II, and figured it would all end there. But thanks to improvements in DNA tracing, the family is hopeful that it can bring Irvin’s remains back home soon. Contributed photo

“Some didn’t answer, some just weren’t interested, some had found peace with the deaths and the loss of proof, but after contacting North Dakota senators John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer--Irvin was from Dahlen, North Dakota--and Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, because we are now from Minnesota, along with 15 other senators, they all wanted those remains to be taken to the right spot to have their DNA tested. Nobody said, ‘This is a waste of time,’ or anything negative. They just wanted to help get it done.”

So the families of the service members who died in the fire sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin saying, “We request an exception to policy be granted to allow the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to proceed with immediate disinterment of the American service members who died in the 1945 Tokyo Military Prison fire and remain buried as Unknowns at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.” The letter said the current percentage of Family Reference Samples (FRSs) was 59.68 percent.

It went on, “In other words, the families of these American heroes, who have waited more than 76 years (now almost 80) to confirm what happened to their loved ones, are forced to wait on less than one percent. There are no guarantees when the DPAA will reach this threshold, and no guarantee that these Gold Star families will live long enough to get answers.”

Irvin’s posthumous medals are shown left.

They were refused. At first. “You reach hurdles like that, and you can’t figure out how you’re going to get over it--but somehow, you just do it.”

Then several other families said “yes,” and the total reached 64 percent. “So 39 caskets (also called transfer cases) carrying their remains were in an honorable carry ceremony to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on April 14, 2022, and then to the forensic lab at the DPAA center in Hawaii, and will eventually be tested for DNA matches. But 81,000 from all the wars since World War II makes it a long process. They are just now working on remains that were brought to the DPAA in 2018, and with Irvin’s being brought in April 2022--we still have to wait, as we haven‘t been given any kind of timetable. At the forensic lab they said it would take a few years.”

Lon said he was born after Irvin died in the prison, and his cousins never knew him. 

“But at every reunion because they were a Gold Star family, they passed down Irvin’s memories to our generation. He was always in the forefront of our mind. Irvin’s name would come up and a scrapbook would be passed around. He was the salutatorian of the 1936 senior class in Dahlen, and had scholarships to Jamestown College, Concordia, and worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as on the farm. In 1940 he helped take the census, on horseback.”

Lon meets with officials from the DPAA. Contributed photo

Lon said nobody in the family thought anything would happen until they learned about the DNA advancements.

“Our family was ecstatic, and the brothers had tears in their eyes, because we were talking about something being reborn here, something that we thought would never happen. So this is the last chance to bring them home and have a decent burial in the cemetery at rural Dahlen, and have some closure.” 

Irvin’s family has been well-represented at the DPAA site in Hawaii, with Lon and Paul, his sister and family, nephew and niece and families. “So we’ve had a good representation of family members to keep Irvin’s name alive. They have a full crew of the best DNA experts in the world in the largest DNA forensic lab in the world, including a paleontologist and archeologist. But there are 81,000 to be tested, so we’re still waiting for a word from the forensic lab on Irvin,” he said.

After doing so much work to keep Irvin’s name alive, Lon has tons of data and more than 200 photos. 

“Members of my family have been asking me to write a book to pass down to the next generation, so I’ve started on that. It will include letters written back from during his training, letters from him to his family, from his sisters to him, and will use the scrapbook that we pass around each family reunion. I have that, and all of what we as a Gold Star family had to do to get these remains to DPAA where they can eventually be identified.”

Irvin’s headstone in the Dahlen cemetery. Contributed photos

Getting the caskets to the DPAA center was not a simple project. 

“Because the rainy season was coming up in Manila, the DPAA disinterred half of the caskets, but then were going to wait a few months until the rainy season ended. But they were convinced to get those other caskets right away and bring them back to the DPAA center. It’s been a really long haul, but every step, every success, every step forward is worth that wait. With new DNA advancements they have now, it’s going to help identify these remains for various families, and I hope we’re one of them.”

At times, Lon said he felt like abandoning the quest. “But with all the support from my family these past few years, that’s the last thing that I would do.”

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