Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Ted Gardner can remember one of the few times his father cried.
“The day he got the notice that my brother was missing overseas, he sat at the table, put his head down and cried,” Gardner said Thursday shortly after officials with the Department of the Army’s Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Operations Center confirmed that his long-lost half-brother had been identified from a collection of remains found on the island of New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean.
Charles Arthur Gardner was presumed dead after he went missing in April 1944, when the younger Gardner was just 16. The elder Gardner, 32, was a staff sergeant and radio operator in the Army Air Corps helping with flying missions over the Pacific Theater. His remains were among those of eight servicemen found in the northern part of the island between 2008-11.
“I never met him personally; he was my half-brother,” Gardner said. “But I knew him through the stories my father would tell, and I certainly talked with him on the phone.”
A continent apart
Charles Arthur Gardner was born in Illinois to the first wife of Ted Gardner’s father. Charles eventually grew up in California with his mother and two siblings.
“My father was married twice,” Ted Gardner said. “My half-siblings, including Charles, grew up on the West Coast. My father remarried, and had two children, me and my sister. We grew up on the East Coast. We didn’t have a lot of interaction with my half-brothers and half-sister.”
Ted was “12 or 13,” he recalls, when his brother was called into the Army Air Corps. His brother, stationed in Florida for a time, was the closest he’d been to their father in several years.
“My father would talk for years about the three days that he got to spend with my brother,” Ted said. “He went to Florida to see my brother. Charles ended up getting three furlough days that he wouldn’t have normally had. I felt like I was connected to my brother through those stories.”
Peggy and Ted Gardner have kept the letters written by and to Charles Arthur Gardner close by for years.
They include the letter written April 25, 1944, to Charles’ mother, May Gardner, notifying her that her son was missing in action as of April 10 of that year, and a letter from later that summer noting the same and giving some details as to his whereabouts.
In writing home to his mother, Charles Arthur Gardner only ever said he was in Australia. He was said to be helping with flying missions over the Japanese-controlled islands surrounding that country, a member of the Allied forces.
About April 10, 1944, he and 11 others aboard a B-24 named Hot Garters took enemy fire in the airspace above mostly Japanese-controlled New Guinea. Natives later told Allied investigators that they had seen five men parachute from the plane.
“We know that four made it off the plane, although they were badly burned, according to the natives,” said Karen Johnson, a mortuary affairs specialist with the Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch of the Department of the Army’s Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Operations Center. “Residents of the village said for years that they saw five men parachute from the plane, but we only know of four that were confirmed.”
Those four were later captured by the Japanese and executed in various ways, with one being set on fire and another being shot when he was too injured to march to another village. The Allies would take the whole island just 30 days later.
Johnson said all the evidence she has shows Charles was on the plane when it crashed. She presented Ted Gardner and his sister, Sarah Shaw, with a detailed report of her organization’s findings on their half-brother on Thursday at Ted’s daughter’s home in Manning.
“Due to the location of the remains and the way they were found, we would surmise that Charles and the other seven people who died in the crash had quick deaths,” Johnson said. “We hope that knowing your brother’s death was quick and not as brutal as those of the four who were captured can bring some comfort.”
Peggy said she’d seen in one of Charles’ letters to his mother where he talked about not completing his parachuting training.
“He said he hadn’t done it yet, but that he figured he wouldn’t,” she said. “He said if something happened, he saw himself going down with the plane. Isn’t that something?”
Johnson said the effort to find and identify soldiers missing-in-action in American wars and conflicts overseas have been aided, in part, by aviation enthusiasts.
“We still have 42,000 to 43,000 of our soldiers who are missing-in-action from World War II,” Jones said. “And it’s been the public, the air enthusiasts, who have really led the effort to identify these lost soldiers. And with forensics being so much better, and really they increase just year-after-year, we’re having more and more identifications.”
Interest in Charles’ and his compatriots’ whereabouts found new light in 2008, when a local villager handed over a box of alleged remains from the crash.
“The area where they went down was a dense, triple-canopy jungle,” Johnson said. “It had been untouched for all that time, with the exception of being a hunting ground for the natives there.”
The find led to four different excavations over a 550-meter area near the known crash site.
Ultimately four teeth, part of a rib, a fibula and some vertebrae were the largest pieces found of the fallen soldiers, and DNA from one of Charles’ teeth was ultimately matched through a mitochondrial DNA analysis.
“They started reaching out for DNA from family members of these eight soldiers sometime in 2012, I believe,” Johnson said.
Peggy said she and her husband were contacted sometime in 2013.
“I think it was around Christmas,” she said. “We got something in the mail asking us for a sample and telling us they thought they found Charles. We were just so surprised after all these years.”
“I just think it’s amazing what they can find out these days, and that they’ve found him after all these years,” Sarah Shaw said of her half-brother. She was 6 when he was declared missing-in-action, and unlike her older brother, she does not remember Charles.
“I don’t remember him, but I knew him through my daddy,” she said. “It hurt his heart until his death what happened to Charles. I remember him going off and crying when he thought no one was looking.”
Johnson said it will be a few months, possibly, until Ted Gardner and Sarah Shaw can give their half-brother a final resting place. She and her organization have to meet with the families of the other men identified in the set of remains. Ultimately, only six DNA profiles were matched.
“Out of the eight men we know that were on the plane when it crashed, we could only get seven independent DNA sequences,” Johnson said. “Six of the seven had specific identifications, and one did not match at all. So that’s still a bit of a mystery for who we thought was on the plane.”
But Johnson is sure Charles Arthur Gardner is one of the eight.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he is part of this group,” Johnson said. “While it’s always hard to tell a family that their loved one has died, we know that we are helping them have some closure with this matter.”
Johnson said she will be in touch with the other families, and that Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Radebaugh of Fort Jackson Casualty Affairs in Columbia will be taking care of the Gardner and Shaw families to plan final arrangements.
“Once all the families are notified, we will eventually have a burial with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.,” Radebaugh said.
Ted said he’s looking forward to the day that he and his sister can lay their brother to rest on American soil.
“It’s a piece of our family that has been missing for a long time, and now it feels like it’s whole again,” he said. “I wish that our daddy had been here to see it.”