For 40 years, 2nd Lt. Joseph Rich’s mother kept his picture next to her bed, a reminder of the son who died as a prisoner of war in Burma in 1944.

The Portland man was never given a proper burial because his body was lost.

“Every holiday, my grandmother would always be in tears about Uncle Joe,” said his niece, Lisa Phillips of Windham.

After Phillips’ grandmother died, Phillips started to push the federal government to do more to return remains of American servicemen who died overseas during World War II.

“I was never going to find Uncle Joe. I was so frustrated and so upset, I needed to take that anger and change it to a positive,” she said.

She started World War II Families for the Return of the Missing, and has helped many families find their relatives’ remains and have them returned to the United States. Additionally, scores of people have gotten information about missing relatives.

“At least I can help other World War II families,” she said. “There are thousands of families out there looking for closure.”

Now Phillips has a chance to do for herself what she has done for others.

Last month, she learned that a private search organization had found the crash site where her uncle’s remains are believed to be. He and others who had died in the prison camp were being flown back to an American war cemetery in India in 1946 when the C-47 that was transporting the remains crashed in a storm.

The villagers near the site had known about the crash since it happened but had no idea that anyone was trying to find it, she said. They buried the servicemen who were on board, and the incident faded into memory until MIArecoveries.org, an organization run by an Arizona man, found it during an expedition in November.

But discovering a crash site is only the start of the return process. Phillips said it could be years before her uncle’s remains make it home.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command must negotiate foreign bureaucracies and commit to the expense and labor associated with collecting the remains and transporting them.

Back in this country, analysts must confirm the service member’s identity by comparing the person’s DNA to known samples if they have them, and to family members if they don’t.

Recovery tends to take two to three years, with archaeologists combing a sometimes sizable debris field. It takes another two to three years to match DNA to confirm a serviceman’s identity, Phillips said.

The command is recovering remains from two other crash sites, and Phillips said she wouldn’t feel right asking the government to divert resources from that project to recovering her uncle’s remains.

She will meet this month with government officials to discuss the findings.

Phillips’ group has 300 members and subsists on donations and volunteer effort. Like most of those involved in the research, Phillips is not paid. She works full time in patient registration in Maine Medical Center’s emergency room in Portland.

Clayton Kuhles, the researcher who found the crash site and heads MIArecoveries.org, confirmed the plane’s identity from a piece of equipment that was numbered. That showed that the plane had not crashed into the Bay of Bengal, as had been thought.

Phillips suspected as much. Like many World War II researchers, she has worked hard to fill the gaps in her uncle’s story, working with a wide network of volunteers and armchair scholars, and the documents her grandmother had.

She knows he was badly burned when his plane crashed in Burma in 1943, but he was one of three to survive and be taken prisoner by the Japanese.

He weighed 80 pounds when he died of disease, malnutrition and mistreatment on Nov. 13, 1944. Just before he died, he gave his wedding ring to another prisoner and asked him to deliver it to his wife, Bernice, a captain in the Army Nurse Corps.

That prisoner hid the ring in a crack in his cell wall. He survived and fulfilled his mission, providing information about 2nd Lt. Joseph Rich.

After the war, as the C-47 flew from Burma to India with the remains of at least 38 servicemen, it disappeared in a storm. The remains of a man from the Searsport area also were on board.

Phillips says there is peace in knowing where her uncle’s remains lie and in knowing that, in time, they will come home. She says it’s like the satisfaction she has felt helping others find their family members.

“It’s almost like you get to know these missing service members,” she said. “I feel like they’re all my family.”

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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