AVON — Nearly eight decades ago, Sgt. Zelwood Gravlin squeezed into the rear gun turret on a B-24 Liberator to man his position as rear gunner. He was 21 years old.

The remains of Sgt. Zelwood Gravlin, a native of New Vineyard, raised in Strong and Phillips and killed when his B-24 bomber was shot down over Romania in 1943 during World War II, were identified this year. He will be buried Saturday next to his mother in the family plot in Avon. Submitted photo

A year before D-Day and with no bases yet on mainland Europe, Gravlin, a New Vineyard native who was raised in Strong and Phillips, departed from Libya with his 10-man crew and joined 176 other B-24s for a dangerous 2,000-mile, daytime bombing mission. Called Operation Tidal Wave, the goal on Aug. 1, 1943, was to destroy Romania’s major oil refinery that fueled the German war effort during World War II.

Gravlin’s plane never made it back to its home base in Africa. The plane was one of 51 bombers that failed to return. Hundreds of airmen died, and Gravlin’s remains could not be identified.

Utilizing the latest DNA technology, as well as dental and anthropological analysis, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced this summer that it had finally identified Gravlin’s remains.

Gravlin will be laid to rest next to his mother, Ida, on Saturday at Mile Square Cemetery in Avon. It follows funeral services with full military honors at 11 a.m. at the Phillips Area Community Center, 21 Depot St., Phillips.

Sue White, his great-niece, thought the day would never come.


Family spokesman Tom Saviello said White “promised her father that she would get him back somehow.”

Born Aug. 28, 1921, Gravlin attended schools in Phillips and Bethel and attended Gould Academy in Bethel. He moved to Plainville, Connecticut, to work for the war effort in a factory. It was there where he enlisted June 16, 1942, in the Army Air Force, as it was known during WWII before becoming its own branch of the military.

He received training in Florida, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and Kansas before heading overseas in April 1943 with the 343rd Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group of the USAAF. His B-24 Liberator was nicknamed “Four Eyes.”

Operation Tidal Wave was planned for Aug. 1, 1943, as a way to cripple the Axis war machine. The target was Ploiesti, located north of Bucharest in Romania. The refinery provided an estimated 30% of the Germans’ fuel and was sometimes referred to as “Hitler’s Gas Station.”

The planes would cross the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, and would fly over Albania and Yugoslavia before entering Romanian airspace and attack the Ploiesti refinery from the north, flying only 100 to 300 feet above the ground.

Air defenses and enemy aircraft shot down a third of the Allies’ attack force. The operation was considered one of the costliest air raids for the USAAF in Europe with the number of planes and lives lost.


Remains that could not be identified were buried as Unknowns in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania.

After the war, the American Graves Registration Command moved all of the American remains that could not be identified and interred them at Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.

In 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began exhuming unknowns believed to be associated with Operation Tidal Wave and sent them to its laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for examination and identification.

The family was aware of the effort for the past three to four years, Saviello said. He said all the teeth matched Gravlin’s record, except one that Saviello said was likely from a procedure performed after he joined the military. An examination of the soil determined that the remains were likely from that era, he added.

Gravlin’s family was notified July 12 that his remains were positively identified following mitochondrial DNA, and Y chromosome DNA analysis.

Since his name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy, along with others still missing from WWII, a rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Five members of the current squadron, now stationed in Louisiana, will attend Saturday’s service and burial, Saviello said.

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