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The long journey home

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about a lost brother and a little sister’s search and struggle to bring him home. Part one is available online at journalpress.com. The third installment will be featured in the May 11 edition of The Journal.

In 1962, long before Mickey Beard moved from Vienna to Colonial Beach, she was busy raising her family. The routine of school days and homework seemed to be front and foremost each day. But the nagging desire to bring her big brother, Staff Sgt. George Lewis “Rip” Winkler, World War II U.S. Army Air Corps veteran, home for a proper burial had never diminished.

Small things, like a bulldog statue, kept Rip’s memory part of daily life for Mickey.

The dog was an award Rip earned during a pre-war job riding the “Jingle Bike,” selling ice cream.

“He named him ‘Jingle Bike Joe,’” Mickey recalled. “He gave him to me when he left and told me to keep it for him until he came home. Jingle Bike Joe still watches through the glass in the china closet, still waiting.”

Rip was killed in action on April 3, 1945, on the Philippine Island of Cebu. As a young girl, Mickey never believed her big brother was gone. As an adult, Mickey wanted to make sure her brother had a proper final resting place.

Mickey had no idea what she would find as she slowly embarked on her search for information, fueled by her mother passing on letters and photos that had belonged to Rip into Mickey’s care.

In 1962 all Mickey knew was that Rip’s remains were interred in a common grave in Jefferson Barrack National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri, buried along with four other members of his squad — U.S. Army Air Corps, 13th Air Force, 42nd Bomb Group, 100th Squadron, also known as The Jungle Air Force. Mickey knew the burial had taken place on December 15, 1949, in St. Louis, which the military deemed to be centrally located for the families of the five airmen who were from West Virginia, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Maine.

The common grave was marked by a single tombstone that listed the names of the five airmen: Captain Leonard Orcutt, Second Lieutenant Robert Emerson, Second Lieutenant Harry Bedard, Staff Sergeant George “Rip” Winkler, and Technical Sergeant Louis Miller.

“In 1949, Mother could not afford to go to St. Louis” to be present for Rip’s burial, Mickey said. The families were expected to pay their own expenses, and in 1949 the country was recovering from a year-long recession.

The thought that Rip’s remains were laid to rest unidentified and buried in a common grave with his fellow crew members never did sit well with Mickey. And over the years she vowed to research the Army’s handling of Rip’s remains.

In 1962, armed with letters from Rip she had gotten from her mother, Mickey began to research what happened on April 3, 1945, on Cebu Island and what happened to Rip’s remains from that point forward. She was looking for answers and hoping to find a way to finally say farewell to her beloved big brother.

Mickey started her search at the NPRC, National Personnel Records Center, in St. Louis, Missouri. She learned that an search and recovery team had gone to the crash site on January 13, 1947, two years and eight months after the April 3, 1945, crash. The report from the team noted “skeletal remains fragmented” and further remarked that “no identification clues found on remains.”

In those military records, Form 1042 shows that Winkler, George L, #569; Orcutt, Leonard E., #566, and Bedard, Harry L., #568, were buried in a common grave in the United States Air Force Cemetery in Leyte, Philippines. The numbers assigned to each airman were called “unknown” numbers because the remains had not been identified.

“Even though the military knew their names and this was the only plane that crashed in the area, because they could not be individually identified, they were listed with just numbers,” Mickey said.

Another document found by Mickey was dated March 4, 1948, and stated “Case under investigation. Do not release burial information.”

The sixth member of the flight crew, Lieutenant Willis Ehrhardt, had survived the crash, but died the following day while in the care of Filipino natives. Ehrhardt’s remains were properly identified by papers Ehrhardt carried on his person. Ehrhardt was buried in a U.S. Air Force Cemetery on the island of Leyte in the Philippines.

Through her research, Mickey discovered that in December of 1947, 11 months later, those remains were assigned a new set of “unknown” numbers and were moved to storage in Manila.

In the mid-1990s home use of the Internet became widespread, and Mickey began to make use of various message boards, such as The World War II forum on genealogy.com. Hundreds of people post pleas on the WWII forums looking for information, photos, details and help with hard-to-understand military abbreviations and acronyms as they look to find information on their fathers, brothers and grandfathers who were killed in action, missing in action or held as prisoners of war during World War II.

Medals and Citations Awarded to
Staff Sgt. George Lewis “Rip” Winkler

• Purple Heart

 

• Air Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster

 

• Good Conduct Medal

 

• American Campaign with Silver Service Star

 

• World War II Victory Medal

 

• Philippine Liberation Ribbon with Bronze Service Star

 

• Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation

 

• Aerial Gunner Badge

Through numerous online forums and message boards, Mickey learned to make second and third requests for information, as oftentimes the information provided in response to each subsequent request would contain more detail. Mickey also learned important information such as document dates and locations of files from anonymous strangers who had access to files and understood her frustrations. She learned from a retired Army officer in Hawaii that records relating to the plane crash on Cebu Island that took the six airmen’s lives had been “marked for destruction.” As she learned how to navigate the myriad military departments and archives, Mickey began to share information with others seeking answers. Helpful tips included the importance of requesting an Individual Deceased Personnel File for each service member joined together by having gone missing together or killed in action together, as each file could contain different bits of information.

Mickey’s journey took her through the disappointments of finding dead ends and the joys of uncovering documents and information. And, much like Rip’s journey, she was sustained by the support of her family and the goodwill of strangers who lent a helping hand or offered encouragement along the way.

Mickey began to compile a file with copies of each report, document and correspondence she received as she began to unravel Rip’s long journey that seemed to have ended with the December 1949 group burial in St. Louis. Today, the numerous binders holding the reports and correspondence that Mickey uncovered over the last 44 years, each carefully encased in plastic paper protectors, are a testament to the incredible amount of dedication that Mickey showed in her effort to provide Rip with a proper resting place.

Mickey was referred by a friend to Ret. Lt Col Jack Forgy, who had compiled massive amounts of research on the young servicemen who were listed as Missing in Action or Killed in Action from World War II, and she became sure she was on the right path. Upon his retirement in 1996, Forgy began volunteering for the American World War II Orphans Network and assisted the families of more than 600 service members searching to find answers. In 2004 Forgy was quoted in an article in USA Today, “You need a sense of intuition, so when you pick up a 700-page file on a division that fought in the Philippines, you’ll find what you need.”

According to documents discovered by Mickey and Forgy, in 1951 Filipino natives had discovered additional remains at the April 1945 crash site and had contacted the American Consulate on Cebu Island. The Consulate, in turn, contacted the U.S. Air Force who ordered a second search mission that resulted in the discovery of additional remains.

Although Mickey was able to find transport records of the newly-discovered remains, “there were no records pointing to any disposition of the remains,” she said. “For me, everything just stopped. That’s when I started questioning and contacting ... I kept pushing.”

Mickey’s efforts kicked into high gear.

“I kept pushing, feeling like something was really wrong here.” Mickey said. And when asked by the countless military officials she contacted, “‘What do you want?’ I would say, I want you to tell me where my brother’s remains are,” Mickey said.

Finally, in 2007, Mickey uncovered a “Movement of Remains” and 34 other documents tracking the journey of the remains found in 1951. The remains had traveled from Manila to Ft. Mason, California, and finally to St. Louis.

“The documents took seven months to declassify,” Mickey said. “I was so disappointed.”

One disturbing piece of evidence found showed written instructions on a November 1951 document — “Visits to the Next of Kin Concerned Unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary” was not a word that Mickey or her family would have used if they had been asked if they wanted to know about the 1951 location of additional remains — potentially the remains of her older brother, the father to her nephew and the son of her parents.

 

 

 

In 2008 Mickey was able to persuade the Department of Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs to disinter the remains found in 1947 and test them along with the remains found in 1951 so that accurate identifications could be accomplished.

According to declassified documents, the remains found in 1951 had been examined in 1953 at the University of California at Berkley by the Anthropology Department. In a report, it was stated, “Identifications could be made for each airmen by their jawbone and could have been done earlier.”

“With proof in hand and carefully cataloged, and after contacting Congressman Rob Wittman for assistance, the Department of the Army made the decision to exhume the grave and send the remains to the Central Identification Lab in Hawaii to undergo the identification process,” Mickey said. Wittman had written a letter on Mickey’s behalf on May 28, 2008, to the Chief of Army Legislation Liaison, Major General Galen Jackman.

Just one week before Forgy’s death on September 26, 2008, Mickey remembers “I was able to tell Jack they would be exhumed and he told me he was so happy for me. I didn’t realize then how ill he was. And he died just after that.”

Final identification of the five airmen was accomplished in December 2010.

Staff Sgt. George Lewis “Rip” Winkler was positively identified by his jawbone and positive identifications were made for the other four members of the Jungle Air Force. Unidentified remains belonging to four additional people were also discovered among the exhumed remains.

Having identified each of the airmen, the military was ready to send all the remains back to St. Louis for reburial.

But Mickey, having come this far and being this close to achieving her goal of bringing her brother home, argued for an honors military burial in Arlington National Cemetery for Rip.

It was through Mickey’s determined perseverance, with help from Forgy, the American War Orphans Network and Congressman Rob Wittman, as well as many other anonymous civilian and military personnel who provided various forms of assistance, that she was able to accomplish what she set out to do.

The remains of George Lewis “Rip” Winkler, those recovered in 1947 and those recovered in1951, will be finally laid to rest during a Full Honors Ceremony at Arlington Cemetery at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 5. There is a viewing scheduled to honor Staff Sgt. Winkler at Murphy’s Funeral Home in Arlington, Va., scheduled 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4, with Chaplain Kelly O’Lear presiding. Members of the public who wish to pay their respects are welcome to attend

Mickey, her two daughters and their families will be there, along with relatives from across the United States. Rip’s son, Lance, will be there. The family of Second Lieutenant Harry Bedard will also be in attendance. Rip’s mother, Elizabeth, and younger brother, Russell, are deceased.

Staff Sergeant George Lewis “Rip” Winkler was escorted home by his cousin, Bruce Fenstermaker, on a flight from Hawaii to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., on Monday, May 2. Fenstermaker was charged with hand-carrying the folded flag that had been presented to the family during a 2007 memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery. That flag will cover the casket throughout Rip’s final journey home.

Mickey chose an excerpt from a poem by Elizabeth J. Buchtenkirk to appear on the funeral hand-out that reads “I stood, my eyes turned upward still … And drank the air and breathed the light … Then, like a hawk upon the wind ... I climbed the sky, I made the flight”

Rip’s wife, Iris, took up flying after the family knew Rip was gone. Mickey recalls, “She took me up in a seaplane. I think she told me (it was) to be nearer to Rip or being in the sky.”

Before Rip left for California, and eventually the Pacific, he was stationed in Columbia, S.C.

“He and others were on a training mission ... to fly their B-25 bombers to a base in Ohio and then return. I don’t know how many planes were involved. Rip told mother they would go via Huntington and when,” remembered Mickey.

“We waited, watched and listened. We heard those engines, ran outside and when they flew over the pilot of Rip’s plane dipped its wings side to side. We waved back so excited and happy.”

Mickey continued, “That would have been the last time …”

 — Kathy Flanagan

 

Above: Mickey and her brother, Buddy, look at Rip’s name etched in granite on a monument in Charleston, WVa. Buddy passed away in November 2010. “As my brother looked at the names recently added he saw the names of men of WWII familiar to him,” Mickey said. “He had tears in his eyes and told me he needed to leave. Soon his name will be added.”

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