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Springville • In March 1944, 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird took flight in his A-20G Havoc bomber in an attack on Japanese airfields in western Papua New Guinea. He was last seen trailing his squadron.
But after his niece, Lorna Bird Snyder, launched a years-long search for her uncle, Vernal Bird's remains will arrive in Utah this month to be buried with full military honors in the Bird family plot at the Evergreen Cemetery.
For Lorna Bird Snyder, it's been a long time coming. She began her search in 2003, not knowing at the time that a bone had been found at a crash site in the mountains of western Papua New Guinea two years earlier. After moving into her late mother's home, she found "boxes and boxes of letters," including Vernal's. And she took to the Internet to research the American and Australian offensive against the Japanese.
"Every time I found something, I sent for it," she said. "It took years, on and off. Spurts of every day, then it would lie for while. My [late] mom and dad were beside me: 'You're going to do this, dear. Keep moving.' "
After hearing the news on Tuesday, she said, "I feel relieved and just immensely grateful. It's kind of united the family again; cousins we haven't seen coming together. So, OK, things are moving."
Vernal Bird, the 12th of 13 children, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1941. Three years later, he was at an American base in Nadzab, Papua New Guinea, where he wrote frequent letters home.
"I have been assigned to a [squad] up in the forward, area, and, to put it short, this is going to be a sun-of-a-gun," he wrote on March 3, 1944. "I feel damn lucky to be flying with them. I like our ships, fast and maneuverable, but the [Japanese] don't like them so well."
Bird flew with the 5th Air Force's 13th Bombardment Squadron, which flew B-24 and B-25 heavy bombers, and A-20G light bombers. His A-20G was equipped with machine guns, heavy bombs and the lighter parafrag bombs, which floated down onto the enemy slowly enough to prevent the plane from being caught in the blasts.
The A-20 pilots routinely flew just above the treetops, sometimes even through them as they attacked. That campaign was brutal for both sides, as they fought ferociously in jungles, mud and monsoons.
Lorna Bird Snyder learned that captured U.S. pilots in particular suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, who were as exhausted and angry as the Allied forces when they closed in.
On that March 12, the squadron set out for the Japanese base of Boram with the A-20Gs low and fast over and through the the treetops. But Bird and his co-pilot, Staff Sgt. Roy F. Davis, veered toward a mountain range. Then they vanished.
Although a search was begun, it was deemed impractical at the time, according to a report by the Army's Individual Deceased Personnel File on Vernal Bird.
In the late 1940s, the Army's American Graves Registration Services searched for and disinterred, the remains of U.S. servicemen in the Pacific Theater for return to their homes. In 1950, the Army "confirmed the finding of non-recoverability for 2nd Lt. Bird."
But in 2001, a Papuan national named Charles Wintawa found the wreckage of Bird's plane in the steep, wet jungle. He also found a fibula and took it and the engine identification plates to an American recovery team.
Later, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii went to the wreckage of Bird's plane. It cannot be explored, however, until and if a still-attached 500-pound bomb is defused.
Meantime, Lorna Bird Snyder said, "It finally dawned on me DNA." Vernal Bird's sister, Elaine, was the sole surviving sibling, and she gave a sample for testing.
On July 12, Michael Mee of Fort Knox told Lorna Bird Snyder that the fibula matched the DNA sample. The next day, Thomas Holland, scientific director of the Central Identification Laboratory at Hickham Air Force Base in Honolulu, met with her and her husband in Salt Lake City to explain the lengthy and exhaustive process of identification.
"He told us exactly what he'd gone through," Lorna Bird Snyder said. "It was very impressive, very touching." Looking over photos in her Springville home, she said that while she'd never known her uncle, he was her father's little brother.
"He was a constant presence in our house," she said. "They talked about Vernal all the time, how much they loved him.
"It was a little bit frightening to me, as a little kid, to think he was just gone," said Lorna Bird Snyder, now 66. "What is a war where they take people and don't give them back? You could just read the heartache in the parents' faces."
In Vernal Bird's last letter, dated March 10, 1944, he told his brother and sister-in-law that "The sun is setting in our sky and it is really a lovely site. Much more peaceful looking than it really is … I'd like to give you a ride, Nick, along the trees we fly right in the leaves at times. Love to all, Vernal."
His remains, accompanied by a military escort, will be returned and buried on Sept. 28 in the Evergreen Cemetery with military honors. His military headstone will be close to the memorial stone his family placed in the late 1940s.
One day, if that 500-bomb is rendered safe, Lorna Bird Snyder would like to see the place where her uncle's remains were found, and "look for the sergeant, too."
Vernal Bird's last letter
March 10, 1944
Dear Free, Elaine and kids,
The sun is setting in our sky and it is really a lovely site. Much more peaceful looking than it really is. I am now flying with the [illegible] a good bunch of boys. Not much I can say but at times its plenty exciting. I can hardly believe that a few months ago, flying was just my dream, but now, I am flying with some of the So. Pacific aces. Makes you feel plenty good oh yes, we got our little hut finished. We've got plenty of room (3 …. electric lights and water piped in to our back porch, not bad for a bunch of johns like us. We add something new every day, if it's nothing but a new [illegible] to arrange our mosquito nets ??
Hope you guys are well. I'd like you to write me … letters are damn welcome here, you just don't know how much.
Hoped to get to [illegible] in a few months for a period of relaxation…
Like to give you a ride, Nick, along the trees we fly right in the leaves at times.
Love to all, Vernal.