Long-missing WWII Marine's remains brought home for burial.
Nearly 70 years after he went off to fight in World War II, the remains of Marine Corps Pfc. John A. Donovan of Plymouth finally were returned Wednesday to his native Michigan and will be laid to rest Friday next to family members in a Washtenaw County cemetery.
His nephew Tim Donovan of Fowlerville greeted the plane that arrived at Metro Airport from Hawaii bearing his uncle's remains.
"It's an exciting moment, yet a very humbling experience at the same time," Tim Donovan, an Air Force vet himself, said hours before the plane's arrival.
There was added significance to a WWII Marine's remains returning on June 6. Wednesday was the anniversary of D-Day, when 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in France to fight the Nazis in 1944. About two months later, John Donovan's plane went missing in the South Pacific.
John Donovan grew up in the Plymouth area as one of six children. He had just graduated from Plymouth High School in 1942 when he decided to join the Marines.
Two years later, he and six other members of bomber squadron VMB423 took off on a training mission over the South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo -- the largest island of what is now the nation of Vanuatu -- during a rainstorm on the night of April 23, 1944. They never returned. Donovan was 20.
Reports said the PBJ1 aircraft crashed into the side of a mountain on the island. All seven were declared missing in action and presumed dead.
A 50-year wait
It wasn't until 50 years after the crash that a privately funded research team that was looking for another downed aircraft stumbled across the wreckage, sparking a full-blown investigation.
Several years later, a survey team traveled to the site, which was at an elevation of 2,600 feet in extremely rugged terrain, and determined that recovery teams would need specialized mountain training to safely complete a recovery mission, according to the Department of Defense.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command -- which was established on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2003 -- conducts global search-and-recovery operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts. A JPAC search team was sent to the remote Espiritu Santo site and recovered human remains.
In 2009-11, multiple JPAC recovery teams excavated the site and recovered additional remains, along with military dog tags, aircraft parts and equipment. After taking DNA samples from surviving family members of MIAs, including Tim Donovan's father, officials were able to confirm the identity of the seven Marine crew members in January. But Tim Donovan's father, John's brother William Donovan, had died on Dec. 17, 2009.
"It's been a long and excruciating ordeal for everyone involved, but it will be good to finally have him back home again," said Tim Donovan. "It's just too bad my dad and aunt weren't around to see the miracle that brought their brother home. It would have been welcomed news for both of them."
A farewell with honors
Upon arrival in metro Detroit, John Donovan's remains were transported to a funeral home in Fowlerville. A funeral mass will be said Friday in Ann Arbor. He will be buried next to his brothers at a cemetery in Ann Arbor. In attendance will be his only surviving sibling, Josephine Demianenko of Apopka, Fla.
"It's truly a miracle," Demianenko, 82, told the Free Press, recalling the day when a telegram arrived at the family's home in Michigan notifying them that her brother was missing in action. "I never thought I would see the day that my brother would return."
When family and friends gather for the funeral mass, Demianenko said, the moment will be bittersweet: "We're happy that he's finally home, but certainly not looking forward to viewing his funeral."
The funeral mass is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Old St. Patrick's Church in Ann Arbor, 5671 Whitmore Lake Road. Burial with full military honors will follow in Old St. Patrick's Cemetery, across the street from the church.
See Votes by State
News & Politics