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Families in North Dakota and Minnesota work to bring home the remains of veterans killed in WWII prison fire

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U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sgt. Irvin C. Ellingson was one of 62 American servicemen held captive in the prison which caught fire in May 1945 following an American bombardment of B-29s.

None of them survived.

After the war, remains were recovered from the prison site; of these, more than two dozen have been identified as US servicemen.

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But the remains of 37 other Americans, which could include Ellingson, could not be identified and were buried as “unknown” at the American Cemetery in Manila in the Philippines.

Ellingson’s nephew Lon Enerson is one of a group of families determined to change this.

“We waited 76 years for our family to collect his remains,” he said.

Lon Enerson holds a photo of his uncle, Irvin Ellingson, of Dahlen, North Dakota, who died during World War II.  He and other family members attempt to identify Ellingson's remains and return home.  Screenshot of the interview

Lon Enerson holds a photo of his uncle, Irvin Ellingson, of Dahlen, North Dakota, who died during World War II. He and other family members attempt to identify Ellingson’s remains and return home. Screenshot of the interview

Enerson is one of dozens who submitted DNA samples to the cause.

With today’s DNA and facial reconstruction technology, the remains can be exhumed and brought back to the United States for identification.

A roadblock, however, prevents this from happening.

Since the remains are mixed, the Defense Department has a threshold for exhumation – at least 60% of the families of these veterans must provide DNA samples or similar identification in order to make matches.

Currently, this figure from prison fire victims is less than 1% of the threshold.

“If that doesn’t happen soon, I’m going to have to pass this on to the next generation to keep looking,” Enerson said.

In a letter signed by 17 US senators, the families of the veterans are asking Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for an exception to the policy and an immediate exhumation of the remains.

The signatories include Senators John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota.

In a statement, Hoeven said he had been in contact with the families of these soldiers and that he would continue to press for the “expedited return of their remains”.

“This is an opportunity to give loved ones who are still alive some peace of mind,” Cramer said in a statement.

Enerson said he wanted to support other families who are in the same situation.

“There is hope, even after all these years,” he said.

These are some of the medals won by the US Army Air Force Sergeant Major.  Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, ND, during World War II.  Special at the Forum

These are some of the medals won by the US Army Air Force Sergeant Major. Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, ND, during World War II. Special at the Forum

Shot over Tokyo

Enerson is a veteran who served in the United States towards the end of the Vietnam War. He believes he was the last person drafted from Walsh County.

“I am very proud of my service,” he said.

Enerson lives in St. Cloud and grew up in Fordville, North Dakota, a few miles from where his uncle Irvin Ellingson grew up.

Ellingson lived on a farm near Dahlen in neighboring Nelson County, about 80 miles northwest of Grand Forks, the second eldest of Tommy and Ella Ellingson’s eight children.

Some time after graduating from high school in 1936, Ellingson enlisted in what was then called the US Army Air Corps.

This is the 1936 high school graduation photo of Irvin Ellingson of Dahlen, ND Staff Sgt.  Ellingson served as a radar operator during World War II.  Special at the Forum

This is the 1936 high school graduation photo of Irvin Ellingson of Dahlen, ND Staff Sgt. Ellingson served as a radar operator during World War II. Special at the Forum

He trained as a radar operator for 18 months in the United States before traveling to Saipan in the Western Pacific.

Ellingson was proud of his family and his Norwegian heritage, and in letters written home he longed for his mother’s meals, Enerson said.

On April 14, 1945, Ellingson was aboard a B-29 on a combat mission when the plane was shot down by a Japanese fighter jet over Tokyo.

Ellingson’s cousin, Con Thoe, worked as an aircraft mechanic at Saipan and was among the first to learn that Ellingson’s plane had not returned from the bombing mission.

This is the first page of a letter written in 1945 by Con Thoe, an aircraft mechanic serving at Saipan during World War II.  His cousin, the US Army Air Forces sergeant major.  Irvin C. Ellingson from Dahlen, ND, was on a plane that was shot down over Tokyo in April 1945. Thoe informed Ellingson's mother that her son's plane had not returned from a mission bombardment.  Special at the Forum

This is the first page of a letter written in 1945 by Con Thoe, an aircraft mechanic serving at Saipan during World War II. His cousin, the US Army Air Forces sergeant major. Irvin C. Ellingson from Dahlen, ND, was on a plane that was shot down over Tokyo in April 1945. Thoe informed Ellingson’s mother that her son’s plane had not returned from a mission bombardment. Special at the Forum

He ended up writing a heartfelt letter to Ellingson’s parents, telling them the tragic news.

In the summer of 1945, the military sent a telegram to the family saying Ellingson was officially considered missing.

This telegram was sent to the family of the US Army Air Staff Sergeant.  Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, ND, declaring him missing during World War II.  As of the date of the telegram, Ellingson was being held in a Tokyo military prison after his plane was shot down over Japan.  On May 25, 1945, the prison caught fire in an American bombardment, killing all 62 American inmates inside, including Ellingson.  Special at the Forum

This telegram was sent to the family of the US Army Air Staff Sergeant. Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, ND, declaring him missing during World War II. As of the date of the telegram, Ellingson was being held in a Tokyo military prison after his plane was shot down over Japan. On May 25, 1945, the prison caught fire in an American bombardment, killing all 62 American inmates inside, including Ellingson. Special at the Forum

Of the plane’s 11 crew, Ellingson was one of six who actually survived, only to be captured and die six weeks later in a military prison fire on May 25, 1945.

The Japanese prisoners managed to get out of the fire safely, but the prison guards did not ensure the same for the Americans, according to historical accounts.

After the war, several were tried for war crimes for failing to help save the lives of American detainees. Their sentences, to death by hanging, were commuted to life imprisonment with hard labor, according to these accounts.

Collect the coffins

Two other people from the Midwest were among the dead in the Tokyo military prison fire.

The remains of the cape. Allen L. Morsch, from Enderlin, North Dakota, have been identified; but like Ellingson, the remains of 2nd Lieutenant Harold J. Nelson Jr., of Duluth, were not.

Ellingson has a living brother, Leland Ellingson, 88, of Crookston, Minnesota, who hopes the remains can be identified soon and buried in Middle Forest River Cemetery in countryside Dahlen, alongside his parents and others. brothers and sisters.

The Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, founded in 2015, is responsible for recovering U.S. military personnel listed as POWs or missing as a result of designated past conflicts.

Of the 62 Americans who died in the Tokyo Military Prison fire, the DPAA received 37 family reference or DNA samples, which equates to 59.68%, just below the cutoff.

But the families argue, with the support of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, that since 25 of the remains of the military have been identified and returned to the United States, these men should not be included in the calculation, and therefore, the threshold. has been reached.

Hurry up.

Exhumations can only take place from November to May, Enerson said, because the other months are the rainy season in the Philippines.

Enerson hopes that those coffins buried in the American Cemetery in Manila can soon be brought back so that the identification process can begin.

There is also an ongoing movement to dig a football field built on the original site of this Tokyo prison, in particular, Cellblock 4, where Americans were imprisoned.

An unidentified man holds a photo of an American serviceman who is said to have died in the Tokyo military prison fire in 1945 during World War II.  The soccer field shown is the approximate location of Cellblock 4, where 62 US inmates were being held.  The families believe that other remains exist under the field and should be excavated.  Special at the Forum

An unidentified man holds a photo of an American serviceman who is believed to have died in the Tokyo military prison fire in 1945 during World War II. The football field in the photo is the approximate location of Cellblock 4, where 62 US inmates were being held. The families believe that other remains exist under the field and should be excavated. Special at the Forum

Enerson said it is estimated that only about a third of the remains were recovered initially, and that there may be significant artifacts, including military nameplates, under this football field.

In his statement, Hoeven said he was aware of these excavation efforts and fully supports the DPAA mission to bring home all missing US servicemen.

That would mean the world for the Enerson family would not have to question the location of Ellingson’s remains, “to have a little bit of peace and closure,” he said.


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