Navy pilot missing since 1944 to be buried
Navy Ensign Harry Warnke crashed in the Koolau Range during a training mission
After more than six decades, and only after prompting by Arizona Sen. John McCain, Navy Ensign Harry Warnke will finally be buried with full military honors today in a northern Indiana grave.
Since his death on June 15, 1944, a headstone has stood over an empty grave in Westville, a small farming community in northern Indiana. It sits next to those of his father and mother, who died believing their son was lost at sea.
Warnke enlisted in the Navy at age 23 after attending college in his hometown of Gary, Ind.
He was killed during a training mission while stationed at Barbers Point Naval Air Station.
However, his family was told that his F-6F Hellcat fighter had crashed at sea on a routine training flight.
Myrtle Tice, Warnke's sister, told the Star-Bulletin in 1999 that the Navy told their mother that he was lost at sea.
"My father put up a headstone for him in Westville," she said. "That's where his family is from, and that is where he retired to farm."
In 1944, Warnke was part of an eight-plane training flight belonging to Fighting Squadron 20. The Hellcats had made four successful training bombing runs on a truck at Kapoho Point, south of what was then Kaneohe Naval Air Station. Warnke failed to rendezvous with his flight after the fourth run.
Two days later, F.E. Bakutis -- who commanded Warnke's unit -- hiked to a deep ravine on the Kaneohe side of the Koolaus and reported that the Hellcat had slammed into the mountainside and buried itself to the tail. A shoe and bone fragments were found and buried there, but the grave site was never marked.
In September 1993, Tice, who had been told by World War II historian Ted Darcy that her missing brother might have crashed on Oahu, wrote to McCain asking for his help to "put an end to a sad event."
"The return of a body after the war would have eased my parents' grief," said Tice, who lives near Tucson, Ariz.
At McCain's urging, a nine-member team of what was then called Joint Task Force-Full Accounting flew in 1999 to the top of a Koolau Mountain peak and hiked into the steep, remote ravine. The Hellcat's debris was scattered on a 65- to 70-degree slope. The crash site covered an area estimated to be 330 feet by 82 feet.
Last summer, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which assumed the mission of searching for missing service members from all of America's wars from Joint Task-Full Accounting, conducted a two-month excavation operation that ended Sept. 18.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Liz Feeney, spokeswoman for the command, said positive identification was made in November by matching a DNA sample given by Tice to skeletal remains found at the crash site.
Dental remains also were recovered and matched against Warnke's records.
Feeney said a survival kit found in the Koolaus also had Warnke's name on it. There also was other aircraft wreckage used in the identification process.
A joint service honor guard will participate in today's burial service. Both Tice and her daughter were expected to attend and receive the American flag traditionally given to a family member.
"It is the same type of burial that is given anyone who dies from the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan," Feeney added.
In this case it has been 63 years.