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Promise kept: WWII hero returns home

Promise kept

Army Honor Guardsmen carry the remains of 1st Lt Ewart Sconiers, as Brig. Gen. Evan Dertien, 96th Test Wing commander, salutes at the bombardier’s funeral Jan. 27 in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Sconiers was captured after his bomber crashed over enemy territory, leading to his capture where he later died as a prisoner of war in Poland in 1944. His remains were found and returned home more than 70 years after his death. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Jasmine Porterfield)

Promise kept

Maj. Gen. William Gayler (left), U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence commander, commences military honors as family and volunteers pay their respects at 1st Lt. Ewart Sconiers’ funeral Jan. 27 at DeFuniak Springs, Florida. Sconiers was captured after his bomber crashed over enemy territory, leading to his capture where he later died as a prisoner of war in Poland in 1944. His remains were found and returned home more than 70 years after his death. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Jasmine Porterfield)

Promise kept

Pamela Sconiers Whitelock, niece of 1st Lt. Ewart Sconiers, details her uncle’s WWII service during his repatriation and funeral Jan. 27 in DeFuniak Springs, Fla. Sconiers was captured after his bomber crashed over enemy territory, leading to his capture where he later died as a prisoner of war in Poland in 1944. Whitelock, with the help of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and volunteers, found her uncle’s remains more than 70 years after his death. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Jasmine Porterfield)

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The 40th Flight Test Squadron’s pilots performed a missing man formation honoring 1st Lt. Ewart Sconiers during his repatriation and funeral Jan. 27 in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. The Distinguished Service Cross recipient was laid to rest for the third and final time since his death 74 years ago.

The missing man formation serves as an aerial tribute for a service member or distinguished person who has fallen in combat or passed away. Sconiers was captured after his bomber crashed over enemy territory during WWII and later died as a prisoner of war.

Sconiers, a U.S. Army Air Corps bombardier with the 414th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group, was serving on the B-17F Flying Fortress “Johnny Reb, Jr.” on a mission to bomb German U-boats at Lorient, France in August 1942.

His aircraft endured heavy enemy fire, severely wounding the pilot and killing the co-pilot instantly. Sconiers took the co-pilot’s seat, relying on his limited flight training and guidance from the semi-conscious pilot to safely land the damaged aircraft in the water, off the coast of France. The surviving crewmen were rescued by French fishermen, only to be turned over to the Germans.

Sconiers was transported to Stalag Luft III, a Polish-based POW camp. He spent his time there until his untimely death Jan. 24, 1944 resulting from complications of a ruptured ear drum after he slipped on ice three days earlier. The 28-year-old was buried in the municipal cemetery of Lubin, Poland.

Though Sconiers’ grave was originally marked with a cross bearing his name, Russian occupation of Poland after WWII resulted in the removal of all markers, according to Sconiers’ niece, Pamela Sconiers Whitelock, who spearheaded his homecoming. The bombardier’s case was later declared non-recoverable in 1955 by the American Graves Registration Command after initial searches for him failed.

Finding and bringing Sconiers home proved to be a daunting task Whitelock dedicated a large part of her life to solving. She diligently worked with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Promise Keepers, a group of volunteers who made it their mission to find and bring Sconiers home.

She described their quest as a search for a hero in a haystack of hundreds of unmarked, disturbed graves spread throughout a city block. The block where Sconiers was believed to be buried was now a municipal park.

Between 2006 and 2015, multiple searches were conducted to find Sconiers’ remains, including a full excavation of the park, with no results, according to DPAA. Then in September 2015, an independent researcher discovered a marker with Sconiers’ name in a French military cemetery more than 200 miles north of where he was originally buried.

After the war, the Russians allowed the French to claim their dead – a courtesy not extended to Americans at the time. Searchers believe the French mistook Sconiers to be one of theirs and moved him where he was later discovered.

According to DPAA, historical records indicated no French soldiers with his name were killed during WWII. The same records also revealed several French soldiers who died in the same area were reburied in the French military cemetery.

The link was too much of a coincidence to ignore. In 2016, his remains were disinterred and sent for testing where Sconiers was finally identified.

His return home was marked with a two-day celebration including an escort by the Patriot Guard from Pensacola International Airport to DeFuniak Springs Jan. 25. A parade was held in his honor the following day there.

Sconiers wrote many letters to his loved ones while in captivity, some detailing his hopes and dreams upon his return, others encouraging them, and himself, to not lose hope.

“…I’ll be ever so glad to find myself near to the things I love. Don’t’ worry about me; maybe my soldier’s luck will hold out,” he wrote in an August 1943 letter.

One of his last letters to his wife, dated exactly one month before his death, seemingly foretold of his eventual journey home.

“The finish to the story I began on the pier will be told, but with a different setting; but a sun.”

Hundreds paid their respects to the war hero. Amongst his family were the Promise Keepers and the descendants of his pilot and the ranking American officer in Stalag Luft III – both of whom were present for his first burial.

Congressional dignitaries, and military leaders, including Maj. Gen. William Gayler, commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Brig. Gen. Evan Dertien, 96th Test Wing commander, honored Sconiers as he was laid to rest one last time.

More than 82,000 military personnel serving in conflicts from WWII to present-day are unaccounted for across five continents. Of those missing, more than 41,000 are presumed lost at sea, according to DPAA. The agency sought through its mission to account for U.S. personnel missing in action, bringing one more hero home.

“I shall be more than happy to return home someday,” Sconiers wrote in a letter to his mother in June 1943. “Until then, remember I’m with you each day.”

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