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Photo courtesy of DPAA.

Photo of Lt. Robert "Eugene" Oxford courtesy of Fold3.com.

Photo courtesy of DPAA.
 
 

Photo courtesy of DPAA.

Photo courtesy of DPAA.
 
 
 
BREAKING NEWS: Bringing 1st Lt. Robert "Eugene" Oxford Home - Part I

ZEBULON - CONCORD - It happened one morning on a routine ferrying mission that lifted off from Kunming, China. This was a typical cargo run for a B-24J Liberator named “Hot as Hell” that was flying as a part of a group of planes from China to Chabua, India, but on January 25, 1944, “Hot as Hell” and its eight crew members never made it to their destination.

Eugene was the youngest of six children born to Charlie and Bessie Oxford from Concord, Georgia. Fred was born in 1912, Paul in 1914, Clay in 1915, Martha Kate in 1917, infant Annie Elizabeth born September 19, 1918 and died two days later on September 21, 1918, and Eugene in 1919. Eugene and his sister and brothers played and went to school in Pike County. Eugene was engaged to be married to a Pike County girl named Susan Brown.

Eugene's brothers served in the Armed Forces so naturally, Eugene volunteered to become a part of the Armed Forces when he graduated from High School. He graduated from Midland Army Flying School in Texas on August 13, 1942 and joined the war effort after that. Eugene was a member of the 14th Air Force, 308th Bomb Group, 425th Bomb Squadron as a Bombardier.

1st Lt. Robert "Eugene" Oxford flew on his final flight on January 25, 1944 but never returned to base. Back home, his family worried about him and when he was coming home. It would be sixty three long years before the family of Concord native 1st Lt. Robert “Eugene” Oxford heard what happened on that fateful day in 1944.

The Many Steps of Repatriation

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) representative Jim Bell and Casualty Assistance Officer Captain Tim Schriver from Fort Benning visited with the family in Thomaston on March 31, 2017. This event was attended by many family members and filmed for those who could not attend. Mr. Bell began with the history behind the repatriation process and walked the family through how Uncle Eugene was identified.

More than three thousand American airmen made trips across the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. So many aircraft were lost that the path of the planes became known as the Aluminum Trail. More than 650,000 tons of equipment was ferried to China in order to keep them in the war against Japan and their contribution to the war was very valuable.

According to the DPAA Medical Examiner Summary Report, at 7:40 a.m. on January 25, 1944, the weather was favorable for this routine cargo run from China to India. The crew was made up of: (Pilot) 1st Lt. William A. Swanson, (Co-Pilot) F/O Sheldon L. Chambers, (Navigator) 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, (Bombardier) 1st Lt. Robert E. Oxford, (Engineer) S/Sgt. Charles D. Ginn, (Radio Operator) S/Sgt. Harry B. Queen, (Gunner) Sgt. James A. Hinson, and (Gunner) Sgt. Alfred H. Gerrans, Jr. Conditions quickly deteriorated for “Hot as Hell” and the other planes in this group.

Flying was different back then because there was no GPS to help guide those flying the plane. So when the ceiling lowered to treetop level with bad winds, the group split up to prevent crashing into each other. It is estimated that by 10:45 a.m. when “Hot as Hell” entered the valley, visibility was at less than one mile with low cloud cover. By 11:30 a.m. some of the planes from the group had made it back to the runway. “Hot as Hell” was one of five planes that did not make it to base. No search efforts were initiated at that time because there was no way to pinpoint their location.

Eugene's older brother, Fred, told me in 2007 that survivors of plane crashes sometimes walked out of the jungle months later, but that wasn’t the case for this crew. The crew of "Hot as Hell" was declared MIA shortly after the crash and the crew members on the flight were declared dead after 2 years. Their bodies were not recovered and brought home to their families at the end of the war. Fred passed away before he could see his brother brought home to rest in Concord, Georgia.

On January 26, 1946, The War Department Adjutant General’s Office issued a Finding of Death of 1st Lt. Oxford. The details of this loss and the serial number of the plane were recorded in the Missing Aircrew Report. Mr. Bell said that the Army “put a lot of effort into accounting for soldiers even back then.”

There was a search made for the missing plane in September of 1947, but searchers could not locate the crash site. On October 21, 1947, the American Graves Registration Service changed the status of those on the missing plane from Missing in Action to Killed in Action. In March of 1948, telegrams would have been sent from the War Department to the family. Later, the American Battle Monuments Commission memorialized 1st Lt. Oxford and those on “Hot as Hell” by including their names on the Tablets of the Missing in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial located in the Philippines.

There was nothing further to report on the recovery of those lost in the crash until the Hot as Hell” crash site was found by Clayton Kuhles of MIA Recoveries and an archeological report was filed on December 7, 2006 showing that the plane had been located near Damro, India at an elevation of approximately 9,400 feet. This began the long journey home for 1st Lt. Robert “Eugene” Oxford.

1st Lt. Oxford is memorialized at the family grave site in Concord at the Magnolia Cemetery, the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, on the Veteran's Memorial in Zebulon on the Courthouse Square, and at the Pike County Memorial Annex in Zebulon, Georgia. An engraving at the Manila American Cemetery reads, "Here are recorded the names of Americans who gave their lives in the service of their country and who sleep in unknown graves.”

Mr. Bell advised the family that even now, a symbol is being carved in the Memorial in Manila next to 1st Lt. Oxford’s name to show that he has been returned home. A picture will be sent to the family when this is complete.

But what steps were taken to bring closure to one part of the “Hot as Hell” family, and will there be more?

Recovery of a Plane in a Remote Part of India

It began with a journey to India for Arizona adventurer Clayton Kuhles who has found and documented many plane crash sites. At the time of discovery in 2006, a parachute and oxygen bottle were found at the site, and markings on a wing and panel clearly showed that the aircraft was the missing B-24J Liberator aircraft known as “Hot as Hell.” This was the first World War II plane crash site identified in Arunachal Pradesh. Photos can be seen on the MIA Recoveries website at miarecoveries.org/media-B24J_73308.html Kuhles documented his finding and filed an archeological site report form with the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Accounting Command on December 7, 2006 showing that the plane had been located near Damro Village, Arunachal Pradesh Province in India. “Because of him and that work,” Mr. Bell said, “that is what got this started.”

Eugene’s family had no idea of the discovery until Merrill Roan, wife of Eugene’s nephew Bill Roan, came across a September 3, 2007 message on a Genealogy website from another member of the “Hot as Hell” family asking for information about the family of 1st Lt. Robert E. Oxford of Pike County, Georgia. The post stated that the wreckage of the plane had been located in a remote part of India and that a search was ongoing to locate members of 1st Lt. Robert E. Oxford’s family so that the families could work together to persuade the Department of Defense to send a recovery team to the wreckage site.

Merrill said that it took the family a while to believe that the post was true, but said that less than one week after she came across the post as she was researching family history, the Oxford Family was finally learning what happened to Eugene 63 years ago. Merrill said that she and her mother in law talked about Eugene many times and that her mother in law took her last breath not knowing where Eugene was and that hurt. The “Hot as Hell” families began petitioning the government to bring their loved ones home. That effort finally came to fruition when the DPAA sent teams into India to locate and bring back the remains of their loved ones.

In November of 2008, the Indian government granted permission for a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) team to access the crash site. This brought confirmation that this was the “Hot as Hell” crash site, and it was located on the side of a mountain at 9,400 feet. The search was ended prematurely in 2008 for safety reasons. However, the survey team recommended excavation despite dangerous conditions. Further exploration of the site was permitted in February of 2009 in which locations were identified for future search, but no possible human remains were found at that time. This search was suspended after just a short time because of adverse weather conditions. At that time it was noted that future recovery operations should be in the fall only because of the altitude of the site.

A JPAC team was also allowed access to the site from November 14 to December 13, 2009. No human remains were recovered, but four areas of interest were excavated, and it was noted that further excavation was needed.

Permission had to be obtained each time that a government team went into this highly contested area to excavate. After 2009, no teams were allowed into India for five long years. Then, after repeated requests, permission was granted in May of 2015. A Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA, formerly known as JPAC) team was allowed to go back to the site. Specialized personnel worked from October 4 through November 3, 2015 to recover as much as possible.

A press release from the Embassy in New Delhi, India from September 28, 2015 advised that this was the first recovery mission conducted since 2009 and that approximately 400 Americans are still missing in India with more than 83,000 missing Americans from past wars and conflicts. According to www.lonelyplanet.com/india/northeast-states/arunachal-pradesh, Arunachal literally means the "land of dawn-lit mountains", and Arunachal Pradesh is India's "wildest and least explored state."

The terrain was dangerous with the crash site location on the side of a sixty degree slope. The soil was loose with pebbles and boulders along with low lying shrubs and trees. The site was excavated by clearing the vegetation first. Then a thorough search was conducted using the grid method. Sediments were transported in buckets to specific screening stations where everything was dry-sifted through 1.4 inch mesh screens.

Throughout the recovery process, written documentation including daily logs, section drawings and plan maps were used to track the operation, and all materials of value were sealed in plastic bags, marked with specific information related to the site, and stored in locked cases. Team photographers documented the site before, during and after this recovery effort.

Earthquakes and landslides had affected the area prior to the 2015 excavation, and excavation efforts disturbed the rock and vegetation even more. Mr. Bell told the family that boulders kept rolling down through the excavation site. According to this report, DPAA Command received recommendations from those in charge of the site including the Recovery Leader Anthropologist (RL/A), Team Medics, Team Leader and Senior Mountaineer to discontinue the search of the “Hot As Hell” crash site.

Fragments of a service officer’s cap, shoe and glove fragments, flying trouser fragments, two U.S. coins, and a British India coin had been found among the wreckage of the plane. “These are consistent with items issued to, or used by, U.S. military personnel during World War II, with the exception of the British India coin, which is consistent with the fact that crew members of this aircraft operated in the vicinity of that geographical area.” And, more importantly, possible human remains were recovered including part of a skull bone and lower jaw with a tooth.

Now the work could begin to determine the identity of these human remains and start to bring closure to the “Hot as Hell” families.

Identification Procedures

It took some time to bring the remains of this service member home to America for testing to determine identity and bring closure to grieving families. A repatriation ceremony was held for the remains that had been recovered from these crash sites on April 13, 2016. After the ceremony, the remains were flown by U.S. military aircraft to the DPAA laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, for identification. You can read more detail and view photos from this part of the journey home by going to http://pikecountytimes.com/secondary/oxford12.1.15.html.

Top DNA labs in the world were involved in the identification of Eugene. Mr. Bell brought a copy of the Investigation Report to the family that reads much like a crime scene report. There are details about the search and recovery from independent experts in various fields such as dental, anthropology (bones), and DNA. The report from the medical examiner is complete with charts and pictures. He advised that all of the historians are PhD level. Several family members gave samples of DNA to compare to the remains that were brought back from India.

Mr. Bell stressed that scientists working in different areas conducted independent reviews to find out the identity of the human remains that had been returned to Honolulu. DNA analysis, dental analysis, and anthropology analysis were all conducted.

DNA testing was performed on bone samples from a skull bone and a mandibular tooth at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Testing included mitochondrial DNA which traces the mother’s DNA and Y-chromosome strand DNA which traces the father’s line.

Mitochondrial DNA testing is done first because it is the fastest, cheapest, and easiest. This traced the mother’s DNA and matched 1st Lt. Oxford to his niece, Susan Smith and nephew, Bill Roan. However, there is a chance of a false positive so further testing was conducted.

The Y-strand DNA was also conducted. This is testing through the father’s side of the family, and it also matched up through Tommy Oxford to his Uncle Eugene. There is less chance of a false positive with this testing, and Mr. Bell stated that the DNA lab in Dover has set the standard for the rest of the world. According to the final report based on the strong evidence from these genetic tests, the identity was approximately 623,000 times more likely to be 1st Lt. Oxford.

Furthermore, dental records corresponded to the enlistment records for 1st Lt. Eugene Oxford. This was combined with the anthropology analysis of the skull bone fragment and lower jaw that found that the remains “are that of an adult, aged 18 years of age or older at death.” At the time of his death, Eugene was 24.

The cause of death was not established by the U.S. Army on January 26, 1944. However, the final cause of death is now listed as “Multiple Injuries Due to Aircraft Mishap” and the manner of death is best certified as “Undetermined.” The report states that the more accurate date of death is January 25, 1944. This report is signed by Lisa K. Rivera, D.O, D-ABP, Commander, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, Interim DPAA Medical Examiner for the DPAA.

Prospects of Future Excavation on the “Hot As Hell” Site

Mr. Bell advised the family that search of this crash site is technically on hold at this time. The Final Search and Recovery Report for the “Hot As Hell” site issued on September 21, 2016 states that safety concerns are the reason behind the recommendation of administrative closure on this site. But families of those who haven’t come home yet are still hoping for closure for all members of the flight.

Pike County Times spoke to Clayton Kuhles of MIA Recoveries, Inc. by email in March and he advised his company submitted a technical proposal last year to DPAA to have his archaeologist team complete the excavation work at the “Hot as Hell” crash site. “The aircraft site is slightly less than 50% excavated,” he said. “I'm 100% certain that my team and I can recover additional crewmembers from the site."

Mr. Kuhles spoke with Pike County Times again by email this week and advised, “I can obtain the necessary permits from the government of India and complete the excavation of Hot as Hell this year, no problem whatsoever.” The only issue is the need for a DPAA contract or other funding source to cover the costs of the archeological team. He reiterated his comment from March by saying, “Again, I'm 100% certain that my team and I can recover additional crewmembers from the Hot as Hell site.”

Pike County Times has sent a request to the DPAA for information on this proposal.

“All the crash sites discovered by Clayton, as well as any other crash sites discovered in the future in that region, should be investigated by an on-site team,” said Gary Zaetz, nephew of 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz and Founder and Chairman at Families and Supporters of America's Arunachal MIA's. “The families of all the airmen of all those aircrews deserve nothing less.”

Final Arrangements

The family then discussed the various aspects of bringing home Uncle Eugene. Times and dates of return, interment, and even the possibility of a flyover at the funeral were items of discussion. The particulars were not known in that March meeting, but more meetings and phone calls have taken place since then including a meeting at Moody-Daniel Funeral Home with Captain Schriver, Tim Daniel from Moody-Daniel Funeral Home, and Merrill Roan, who is the point of contact for the family.

The family was presented with a Bombardier wings on behalf of Lt. Oxford as well as the medals from his locker and the ribbons from his uniform. Those medals include the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with a bronze star, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Captain Schriver met at Moody-Daniel Funeral Home with family representative Merrill Roan, Tim Daniel and Sherri Moody from Moody-Daniel Funeral Home, Commander of Pike Post 197 American Legion Bryan Richardson, and me to discuss further information on this homecoming.

The family can go to the airport to view this homecoming ceremony from beginning to finish. An Honors Team will show respects to Lt. Oxford as he begins his final journey home accompanied by his escort, and Lt. Oxford and his family will be escorted to Pike County by the Patriot Guard.

Lt. Oxford will be flown into Atlanta on Thursday, June 8th. He and his family will be escorted from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport to Moody-Daniel Funeral Home in Zebulon by the Patriot Guard, Pike County Sheriff's Office, and Georgia State Patrol. There will be an honor ceremony for Lt. Oxford at the airport and then there will be a departure from there to Zebulon. Those wishing to show respects to the family on this day can line the roadways with American flags to show your support.

The escort to Moody Daniel Funeral Home will depart Delta Air Cargo around 4:10 p.m. and will take I-75 South to Tara Blvd and follow U.S. 19 to Zebulon. Estimated arrival should be between 5:30 and 6 p.m. **This article has been updated to show an earlier start time of 4:10 instead of 4:30 p.m.**

Visitation with the family of Lt. Oxford will be at Moody-Daniel Funeral Home on Friday, June 9th from 5 to 8 p.m. Moody-Daniel Funeral Home is located at 10170 Highway 19 North just north of Zebulon.

There will be a second day of visitation for Lt. Oxford on Saturday, June 10th from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Moody-Daniel Funeral Home.

The Memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 11, 2017 in the Pike County School Auditorium in Zebulon. All of the family members of "Hot as Hell" will be remembered during this service.

Lt. Oxford will be laid to rest in Magnolia Cemetery in Concord, Georgia after the service. Those who would like to show their respects to the family can attend the funeral or gather along Highway 19 between the Auditorium and the Courthouse (or even at the Courthouse) and along Highway 18 between the Courthouse and Magnolia Cemetery in Concord with American flags.

The funeral will begin at 2 p.m. and end by 2:40 p.m. 2:40 to 3:25 will be the transition to the graveside at Magnolia Cemetery. Graveside remarks will be conducted from 3:30 to 3:45 p.m. with military honors conducted at the conclusion of the ceremony.

The family is asking that donations be sent to Clayton Kuhles at MIA Recoveries.org in lieu of flowers.

Closing

The families of eight crew members of the B-24J Liberator nicknamed "Hot as Hell" that went down in the service of the United States finally know what happened on January 25, 1944. For the family of Lt. Eugene Oxford, there will be closure. For the rest of the grieving families, there are still hopes that their loved ones will be returned to them after more than 73 years as well. This service will honor the service and sacrifice of all eight members of this flight as well as lay Lt. Eugene Oxford to rest.

For those who note the amount of time that has passed between the beginning and the end of this journey, remember that there are seven other families from this crash who don’t have the closure provided by this repatriation process including thousands more who have served and haven’t been returned to their loved ones. The Pike County community celebrates the return of Lt. Oxford to his family, but we remember those who still mourn for their loved ones, and as time passes, loved ones pass away as they wait. Let’s continue to bring them home.

More photos are below this article.

Click here to read the articles about search and recovery efforts that have led to repatriation for Lt. Oxford.

Here is a link to a DPAA article from 2016 that shows how crash sites are being conducted in the Himalayas of Myanmar: www.dpaa.mil/News-Stories/Recent-News-Stories/Article/795025/paving-the-way-for-future-recovery-operations-in-myanmar/

Click here to read articles that Pike County Times has written over the past ten years.


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Photos from Magnolia Cemetery.