After 60 years the remains of a World War II aviator are coming home
On the treacherous, frostbitten face of the remote Alaskan volcano, a wildlife biologist saw the ragged but distinctive metal wing of an old airplane and scrambled toward the wreckage.
It was an unusually clear day in 2001 on Kiska Island, and Ian Jones and his colleague took the chance to climb the active volcano, searching for signs of rats that had begun attacking the island's native bird population. Then he saw the airplane.
Jones scurried across the rocky side of the volcano to the fuselage and looked into the cockpit. Before arriving on the island, he had heard stories about the daring American raids on Kiska, then occupied by the Japanese, during "the forgotten campaign" of World War II. He knew that not everyone made it back home.
Among the twisted metal, he saw leather flight gear and parachute silk. He saw a comb, a sweater, and a flight map - all of it preserved by the island's freezing wind, ice and snow.
"I was shocked," said Jones, a biology professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
"I looked back and said, 'This is a war grave.' "
It would take another two years before the military retrieved the remains. It would take two years more before the seven Navy aviators aboard the plane were positively identified and their relatives located.
"The site of the wreck is an incredibly remote, harsh, spectacular, wild place where there's terrific winds and weird clouds coming over the volcano," Jones said. "And from the wreck site you can hear the tremendous roar of steam coming out of the vents because it is an active volcano. It's a place of incredible ruggedness, and harshness, and great beauty, actually."
Jones hurried back to his base for the daily radio communication. As the long Alaskan day ended, he thought about the plane's massive impact as it slammed into the mountainside, and the lives of the people left behind.
"It was really quite overwhelming, quite emotional," he said. "That night, while falling asleep, I thought, 'Oh my goodness, we've found something really important.' "
'Dumbfounded' by find
Sixty-three years after her brother disappeared, the phone rang at Eleanor Keller's Denver home.
The man on the line identified himself as a Navy lieutenant and mentioned something about her brother, something about retrieving an airplane.
Everything else, she said, was a blur. At the time, in 2005, she was 85.
"I was dumbfounded," she said.
Then she was suspicious.
"I told my friends and relatives, and they all told me to watch out - there are a lot of people claiming to be such-and- such. I was being warned about all these telephone calls you get nowadays," she said.
"You're not sure about these things. Especially when it was 63 years ago."
As she absorbed the news, the man said he would call back later.
She later decided the phone call was a hoax.
The forgotten campaign
In the comma-shaped Aleutian Island chain that stretches from Alaska across the Pacific, Kiska Island hangs near the western edge, about as close to Siberia as it is to the Alaskan mainland.
For Japan in 1942, the unguarded island chain presented an opportunity to claim a moral victory, if not necessarily a strategic one, at the height of the war in the Pacific. In the process, thousands of men would die in the miserable conditions for which neither the U.S. nor Japan was prepared.
The campaign began in early June of 1942, after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians and soon afterward took the islands of Kiska and Attu, the first U.S. territories occupied by foreign forces in North America since the war of 1812, according to John Cloe, historian and author of The Aleutian Warriors.
"It's referred to as the forgotten campaign, the forgotten theater of World War II," said Cloe, who lives in Anchorage.
"Everyone's familiar with Normandy, everyone's familiar with Guadalcanal, but few know about this. And it's kind of ironic because this was on American soil, on the homeland."
With the arrival of the Japanese ships, U.S. forces scrambled all the available aircraft in the area.
The American response began with bombing attacks using fleets of lumbering amphibious PBY Catalina airplanes, essentially "flying boats" that weren't designed for the attacks on the heavily-fortified gunships at Kiska Harbor.
From the onset of the campaign, the missions lasted as long as the Alaskan days, the planes flying virtually nonstop, landing in the water, reloading from a supply ship and taking off again.
On June 14 - four days after the initial attacks were ordered - a plane known as PBY-5 04511 took off on what would be the final mission of the "Kiska Blitz."
The plane emptied its bombs on the harbor, according to Navy reports, and "was last seen plunging into a cloudbank."
Flying was a dream come true
When that amphibious plane took off from the cold waters of the North Pacific, Navy Ensign Robert "Bob" Franklin Keller had only flown for a few years.
In his mind, he had been in the air for much of his life.
While growing up in Denver, Keller and his brother, John, built a soapbox derby-sized airplane using leftover parts from their father's sewing machine sales business.
As his sister remembers, the plane was just big enough for one of them to sit inside, and imagine.
"That was the thing in those days - planes," Eleanor Keller said. "And after all, you want to do something adventurous, you know."
The family moved to Colorado Springs, where Keller graduated from Palmer High School, then to Wichita, Kansas, where he earned a journalism degree and worked as a reporter for the Wichita Eagle.
In Kansas, he finally had a chance to take the flying lessons he had spoken of for so long, beaming with what his sister called "a smile that could break your heart." The handsome, wavy-haired Coloradan joined the Naval Reserves in February 1941.
Three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he reported to Patrol Squadron 43 - a group made up of amphibious planes that would soon find itself in the midst of the "Kiska Blitz."
Eleanor Keller remembers kissing her brother goodbye at their home before her father took the young aviator to the train station. Only a few months later, they received word that he was missing.
"At first, you have hopes," she said. "I had an uncle from World War I who was missing in action, and he was found in a prison camp when the war ended."
Inside her home, she picked up a photo of her brother taken in San Francisco before he deployed. In the photo, he gazes into the eyes of a girl he had likely just met.
"To a swell fellow of the Navy by the name of Bob," the inscription reads. "Sincerely yours, Diane."
His 86-year-old sister flipped through another photo album, then closed the cover.
"He was 24 years old. I feel like he didn't get his life at all," she said. "But then you think, there was one (of the plane's crew members) who was only 18 years old - he didn't even get as much as Bob."
Interred in ice for 63 years
When the Americans finally took Kiska Island in August 1943, they expected massive resistance, but found nothing. Japanese forces had slipped away days earlier, shrouded by the fog.
The Americans then began to look for their dead.
According to Navy reports, a search party found the remains of the plane in 1943, nearly 3,000 feet high on the island's volcano. A burial team later interred the crewmen in a common grave, marked by a wooden cross with a hand-carved inscription.
"SEVEN U.S.N. AIRMEN," it read.
Following the war, the military mounted two attempts to find the grave and transport the bodies home but was unable to relocate the burial site, which was covered by snow and blocked by drifts 15 to 20 feet deep.
"On 30 Sept. 1948 the U.S. Navy ceased further efforts to recover the remains," a report said, "and recommended that all seven men aboard . . . be declared non-recoverable."
After Ian Jones rediscovered the site in 2001, the military mounted another recovery mission. In 2003, a team of forensic anthropologists landed on Kiska and scaled the volcano.
The recovery lasted nearly two weeks as the crew worked in dense fog that at one point stranded the team on the volcano for three days.
Still, anthropologists scoured the area, carefully removing human remains and personal items, cataloging the site with detached precision.
"Metal whistle," the report reads, "pocketknife . . . glove, winter flying . . . mercury dime . . . bottle opener/corkscrew . . . toothbrush . . ."
Near the rock cairn that marked the mass grave, the recovery team found a splintered plank of wood with all that remained of the epitaph:
". . . AIRMEN."
Internet queries find family
The Tablets of the Missing war memorial in Honolulu is inscribed with thousands of names of troops lost in the Pacific. Since the late 1940s, Robert Keller and his fellow crewmen have been included among them.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is on the same island as the Tablets of the Missing memorial.
Inside forensics laboratories, investigators are dedicated to shortening the list.
"We're working cold cases that go back to the War of 1812 and the Civil War," said spokesperson Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green, who noted that more than 78,000 service members from World War II remain missing.
"We promised we wouldn't leave a comrade behind," she said, "and we're going to stick to that promise."
When the remains of the Kiska crash arrived in Hawaii, forensic teams analyzed bones and teeth and sampled DNA. They reconstructed skeletons and compiled lengthy reports.
In Keller's case, dental records, along with historical evidence of his part in the crew were enough for a positive identification.
Then, in 2005, the search began for surviving family members - a search that is often as intricate as the forensics investigation. In Keller's case, a search of next-of-kin turned up empty, even though the Navy Ensign had already been immortalized in Naval history.
In 1944, the military had commissioned a destroyer escort in his name. The U.S.S. Robert F. Keller aided in the last stages of the war, including the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and then served through the next two decades.
It was scrapped in 1972 - and by then, the Navy had long since lost contact with the Keller family.
Navy casualty officers eventually turned to the Internet, posting queries on genealogy databases and group forums - one of which was the Collector's Newsletter (tias.com), an antique and collectibles site that often matches people with lost family heirlooms.
In early 2005, several readers at the site saw the posting and led the casualty officers to a home in Denver.
Return to Denver
When the second call came, Eleanor Keller remained wary.
She wasn't sure if she wanted to know any more.
"After my mother passed away, I sat down one day and was cleaning out the desk. I found a bunch of his letters that he had written during the war," she said. "When I read the letters, I don't remember ever crying so hard - I don't remember ever crying like that in my life. I read them all. And then I threw them away. I never wanted to go through that pain again. Ever."
She worried that the phone call would open the door to the pain.
"But now I'm glad," she said. "I'm really glad."
After scheduling a meeting that included her nephews (to ensure it wasn't a hoax, she said), casualty assistance calls officers presented her with the full account of the forensic investigation, including graphic pictures of bones, teeth, and pictures from the crash site.
She's impressed by the thoroughness of the report, she said, but at this point, she's simply ready to bring her brother home.
"He always wanted to return to Denver," she said.
This month, the Navy conducted a formal service at Arlington National Cemetery for burial of the remains of crew members that couldn't be individually identified.
She couldn't make the long trip to Virginia, so she sent the nephew who carries her brother's name, John Robert Keller of Aurora.
Now she's looking forward to the next funeral, at 10 a.m. on June 21, when Robert Keller's remains will be buried with full military honors at Fort Logan National Cemetery.
After years of wondering, she said, she had forced herself not to think about her brother's gravesite. Now she can't wait to see it.
"Once upon a time, every day I thought about him," she said.
"Then there comes a time when - it's not that you love them any less - but you just start to think of other things."
Inside her home, she looked at the thick forensic investigation book, then at her brother's photo album that is only half-filled.
"Now I do think of him again," she said.
Back to Kiska
In the five years since he spotted the plane on Kiska Island, Ian Jones has continued to wonder about the lives that ended on the side of the volcano.
He'll always remember the first time he saw the ragged wing and looked in the cockpit, he said. But among all the twisted metal, among the propellers in the wreckage, he's most shaken by the image of a single comb.
"It made me think, 'Here are young men, maybe 20 years old, who had all of their life ahead of them, even their vanity, that even though they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, they were combing their hair,' " he said.
"Then it was suddenly gone for all of them, all those brave guys."
Earlier this month, Jones set off on another summer-long research trip in the Aleutians.
By Memorial Day, he should be back on the islands.
When he returns to Kiska, he said, there's one place where he promises to pause.
"I'm not a religious or spiritual person, but I can look up at that spot (of the crash), and it holds a special significance. It's a harsh place, and it's often covered in clouds and fog, but sometimes a clear spot breaks out for five or 10 minutes," he said.
"It's really spectacular, and then it disappears again."
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Randll Reese Besch - 6/3/2006
Certainly deserves a news or documentary special to fully encompass the situation and local geography.