An honor guard at Arlington National Cemetery fired a 21-gun salute over the silver casket holding the thigh and jaw bones of a soldier shot down over Papua New Guinea in 1943.
Man on a mission to recover missing U.S. soldiers
Article Launched: 09/07/2008
Keith Phillips of Mill Valley choked up as soldiers handed a crisp, folded flag to the family of Pvt. Joseph Thompson.
"It was a very tear-jerker moment," Phillips said.
The 52-year-old former marketing executive founded the nonprofit Project Homecoming to help locate the more than 80,000 American troops missing from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In the Thompson case, he helped connect a daughter with authorities and cut legal paperwork.
Phillips, a semi-retired consultant and "extreme history buff," invested $60,000 to start the organization last year after reporting the discoveries of soldiers' remains during travels to Pacific islands for more than a decade.
"I never went into this looking for the dead," he said of his island-hopping hobby. "I just started finding them."
In the past year, Phillips has helped families of five missing soldiers. None touched him more than the story of Private Thompson, a U.S. Air Corps gunner in World War II whose remains were buried at Arlington last month.
Born in Mankato, Minn., in 1917, Thompson was among the 11-man crew of a B-24 reconnaissance flight shot down Dec. 3, 1943, over the Bismarck Sea. The wreck was discovered almost 60 years later in thick jungle.
While based in Australia, Thompson fell in love with a woman he learned was pregnant as his leave was ending. Sgt. Thompson was demoted to private for going AWOL to be with her.
Thompson then vanished with his crew, a mystery that began to unravel in 2002 when New Guinea tribesmen found bones scattered in a jungle wreck.
Last year, several bones found in the New Guinea wreckage were identified as Thompson's. The bones of nine other crewmen also were identified.
Forty years after her birth in 1944, Sandy Smith set out to learn about her father, armed only with his name. She tracked down both his birth and adoptive families in Minnesota.
"I did my research to basically be able to walk in his footsteps," she said. "You carry a lot of empty voids when you grow up only having a name."
Phillips' involvement in the case began several months ago, when he contacted military officials, politicians, Australian embassy officials and others seeking next-of-kin status for Smith.
"Keith opened a lot of doors for us," said Smith, an Australian.
She said the funeral service in Virginia helped close a lot of doors as well.
"He's been in the jungle for 65 years," she said. "He deserves to be home."
Phillips said he and others work with Pacific island tribesmen to find military wreckage sites, and report findings to military officials who take over. Often, it takes years to recover bodies.
The Department of Defense budget to locate and account for missing soldiers has remained at $16 million a year this past decade. A separate budget of $70 million to recover the missing has fluctuated.
"I think people will be surprised that there is such little activity to look for these people," Phillips said.
The Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, in Honolulu, Hawaii, is responsible for tracking down soldiers missing in conflicts.
"This is the only line of response," said agency spokesman Sgt. Derrick Goode of the U.S Air Force. The command, manned by about 450 staffers including soldiers, archaeologists and anthropologists, includes the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.
Goode said he knows of "lots of organizations" similar to Phillips' nonprofit. "We're in contact with a lot of wreck hunters for our recovery missions that we go on," he said.
Goode said 88,000 American soldiers listed as missing include about 78,000 from World War II. "A lot of that is on battleships and submarines," he said. "We don't consider those recoverable."
San Francisco political consultant Johnny Wang, a Project Homecoming board member, said Phillips works hard to put families in touch with officials.
"I don't think the public knows how little money and time we're spending bringing the soldiers back," he said.
Jeremy Bramson, an Oakland-based software consultant who has helped with technical aspects of Project Homecoming, said history is at stake.
"It's not just the big human questions of helping families out," said Bramson, a history buff. "It's the cultural and history aspect. There are people's stories that really need to be told."
The program helps keep a focus on older wars, Bramson said.
"If there is any big recovery effort, it goes to the most recent war," he said. "A big part of this is keeping World War II and other conflicts fresh in people's minds.
"To the people still searching, it's as fresh as if it was yesterday."
Keith Phillips of Mill Valley (seen at Battery Spencer in the Marin... (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)