A family's 68-year mystery has finally been solved now that a team from the Pentagon has discovered the wreckage of a plane that went missing in 1944 with a Minnesota Marine on board.
Cpl. Wayne Erickson joined the Marines at the age of 18 and became a gunner on a PBJ-1, the Navy's version of a B-25 bomber. Erickson was assigned to Marine Bombing Squadron VMB-423 flying from the island of Espiritu Santo, what is now known at Vanautu off the east coast of Australia.
Erickson and his crew flew out on a training mission during the night of April 22, 1944 and never returned.
"Well my grandmother was told -- she had got the telegram -- that he had been in a plane crash and it had crashed at sea," Sutton said. "They presumed that they had all drowned."
Erickson's niece, Terry Sutton of Fort Worth, Texas says the family never knew exactly what happened. Now, they do.
"They were out training and it was windy and rainy, typical Pacific storms, and they were going back to their base and they crashed into the side of the mountain, and the base was on the other side of the mountain," said Sutton. "They just didn't get high enough and the communications with the base were out and they just didn't have any idea where they were."
According to the Department of Defense, a group of private citizens discovered aircraft wreckage on Vanautu in 1994. In 1999 it sent a survey team to the site which was located at an elevation of 2,600 feet in rugged terrain. A team that was specially trained in mountain recovery was sent back to the site in 2000 and collected human remains. Several more teams from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) returned to the site from 2009 through 2011. The missions helped them discover what may have happened that ill-fated night more than six decades ago.
Sutton says the JPAC team recovered her uncle's dog tags and bone fragments. The team took a DNA sample from Sutton's sister to make the positive identification of Cpl. Erickson's remains.
"All these years, we thought that he had drowned," said Terry Sutton, Erickson's niece. "When we found out that somebody had gone over to the island and found the crash site -- that they had remains, we were ecstatic because we could actually bury him and put him to rest."
Erickson will be buried with full military honors next Thursday at the DFW National Cemetery.
All of Erickson's remaining family members now live in the Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas area. His mother died in 1995 not knowing what became of her son.