An old photograph of Gene Smith. / Emily Varisco/Special to The News Journal
WILMINGTON, Del. - It seems a lifetime ago that Col. Eugene Smith was declared missing after the Air Force transport plane carrying him to his new command in Alaska went down in a violent storm.
On Friday, the family was able to bury its sense of loss and the awful lack of finality. Provided with a fragment of bone discovered at the once-lost crash site that was confirmed as Smith's, the family gave its son a proper funeral in the family plot at All Saints Cemetery in Milltown.
"After almost 62 years, he's finally in his final resting place," said Jim Coen of Wilmington, one of Smith's nine nephews and nieces. "So we're all very happy to have him back home."
Family members came from near and far for the funeral.
"We always grew up knowing about Gene," said Louise Kiernan, 25, of County Cavan, Ireland, where Smith was born in 1913 before the family moved to Delaware in 1926. "Our grandfather was first cousin with Gene, and he would tell us stories about him."
Smith's is a story of a young man who kept close to his Catholic faith and family, who graduated from the Salesianum School in Wilmington, joined the Delaware National Guard and, in 1942, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the military police. He served as an Army investigator during and after World War II, leading the effort to solve the post-war, $1.5 million theft of Hesse family jewels that ended with the courts-martial of three Army officers.
Smith rose to command the Army's Criminal Investigation Command in Europe.
Shortly after the war, Smith was transferred to the newly formed Air Force and its Office of Special Investigations. Later, he was assigned to take command of OSI at Alaska Air Command. Six hours into the Nov. 22, 1952, flight to his new assignment, while flying through what were reported as "terrifically strong winds" in a mountainous region, the C-124A Globemaster lost contact with controllers 45 minutes before it was due to land.
Several hours later, when all fuel would have run out, it was declared missing. Fifty-two passengers and crew members were lost. "Unresolved," investigators said.
It remained so. The loss devastated his mother, Mary, who passed away seven years later.
"Mom died of a broken heart," Smith's brother, Mike, recalled two years ago. Their father, Patrick, died a year later.
Mike and their sister, Margaret, however, lived to hear some stunning news: In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter crew flying over a remote glacier spotted a debris field, uncovered by glacial movement and melting. It was 14 miles from the original crash site, Smith nephew Brian Gorman said, citing military investigators.
Coen, Mike and Margaret supplied DNA samples that were tested by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base, and the results were supplied to Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Command, or JPAC, to compare to remains found at the site.
Last month, JPAC called. Its scientists had confirmed that a 10-centimeter fragment of skull bone was Smith's.
"It's something that we never thought would happen," said Gorman, who along with Coen flew this week to Hawaii, where JPAC is headquartered, to retrieve the casket containing their uncle's remains, tucked into a blanket folded under a modern Air Force dress blue uniform. They arrived Thursday at Philadelphia International Airport.
"It was just amazing," said Susan Beckman of Wilmington, one of Smith's nieces. "I just lost it yesterday when I saw that casket come off the airplane.
"I just feel bad that his brothers and sisters didn't get to see this," she said. The last two, Margaret and Mike, died in 2012 and 2013.
Only 17 of the 52 who were on board the Globemaster have been positively identified - a fact not lost on Smith's relatives.
During the eulogy at St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington, Gorman praised the efforts of the JPAC personnel and added, "We hope their extraordinary work will one day be able to identify the other 35 men from the C-124 site, so they too can be reunited with their families."
Smith rated a funeral with full military honors. He received that, and then some. A dozen or so representatives of today's OSI came to pay tribute, including its Quantico, Va.,-based commander, Brig. Gen. Keith Givens.
Several members of the Delaware Air National Guard carried the casket at Doherty Funeral Home in Milltown and at the church. Color and Honor guard teams from Dover met the family at the sun-splashed cemetery.
Following a graveside prayer by Father Norman Carroll, a seven-member team fired a crisp three-round salute. A bugler played "Taps."
The flag was lifted off the wooden casket and, silently, folded tightly into a triangle. Givens presented the flag to Coen, stepped back, and a long-delayed final salute to a Delaware veteran was complete.
Uncle Gene had been laid to rest.
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Read the original story: Vet's remains buried 62 years after plane crash