Navy wants to return World War II pilot’s remains to his family

By Travis M. Whitehead
The Monitor

MISSION, February 20, 2005 — The U.S. Navy is trying to locate the family of a Navy crewman killed during World War II after his remains were recovered from the barren slope of a volcano in Alaska.

The remains of Seaman 2nd Class Dee Hall, a Mission native, were found almost four years ago on the northwest face of Kiska Volcano in the Aleutian Islands of western Alaska. He was found along with six other crewmen who were in a twin-engine Navy PBY-5A amphibious reconnaissance aircraft when the Japanese shot it down June 14, 1942.

The U.S. Navy would like to return Hall’s remains to his relatives but is having trouble locating them.

“It’s of the utmost importance that we find them, because our mission here is to make sure that no stone is left unturned in resolving these cases,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Robert Sanchez, POW/MIA officer for the POW/MIA Branch of the Navy Personnel Command in Memphis, Tenn.

No one in Mission seems to remember Hall or know the whereabouts of his family. Mary Alice Martin, the granddaughter of John Conway who founded the city, was attending college in Austin during World War II but she remembers that many young men from here left to serve.

“Every fellow felt like it was his duty to go,” said Martin, 81. She recalls another Mission native who served in World War II and who disappeared: Robert Landry, the brother of the late Tom Landry, the legendary football coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

“We always thought his bomber exploded over the Atlantic Ocean,” Martin said. His remains were never found.

Sanchez is thankful that won’t be the fate of Dee Hall. The Pacific edition of Stars and Stripes ran a story July 28, 2003, stating the remains of seven Navy aviators, including that of Hall, had been found. The plane, the story said, went down on Kiska Island, which Japanese forces occupied during part of World War II.

The Stars and Stripes article said that an American search team found the aircraft wreckage in 1943 and buried the crewmen in a common grave at the crash site. The article quoted Ginger Couden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, as saying that teams tried to recover the fallen servicemen in 1946 and 1947 but “could not reach the site due to heavy snow.”

Ian L. Jones, an Iowa-born associate professor of biology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, found the wreckage in 2001 while conducting field research on rats living on the island, the Stars and Stripes article said.

The gravesite, Sanchez said, had a cross with the words, “Seven U.S. airmen.”

Those seven airmen haven’t been lost to history. The Stars and Stripes article said John Cloe, historian for the Alaskan NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) Region and Alaskan Command at Elmendorf Air Force Base, wrote about the incident in a book called The Aleutian Warriors. In the book, Cloe says the plane “headed into flak-filled skies over Kiska.”

“Suddenly, the PBY came apart in a violent explosion,” the article said. “Pieces of burning metal fluttered down on the hillside below.”

Cloe lists the crew of the PBY-5A, assigned to Patrol Squadron 43, as pilot Warrant Officer Leland Davis, co-pilot Ensign Robert F. Keller, Petty Officers 3rd Class Albert L. Gyorfi, Robert A. Smith and Elwin Alford, Petty Officer 2nd Class John H. Hathaway, and Hall.

In the article, Cloe says pilot Davis “was the last casualty of what was called the Kiska Blitz,” the consistent bombing of Japanese targets in Kiska Harbor.

At the time the aircraft was shot down, the Japanese had just bombed nearby Dutch Harbor on June 3 before taking Kiska Harbor two days later and then Attu Island. Both Kiska and Attu islands are located at the western end of the Aleutians.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Frank Plummer of McAllen said the Aleutian Islands were not a major theater of military operations, but the Japanese invasion created some concern for the Americans.

“They’d just started the Lend-Lease program and they were moving supplies, equipment, armor, ammo, bullets, food through the Aleutians to Vladivostok,” he said. “Then it was shipped on the Trans-Siberian Railway, so the U.S. didn’t want to have any threats to our shipping.”

Vladivostok was located in the far eastern part of the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease program allowed the United States to provide Allied nations defense supplies in World War II. The U.S. gave Lend-Lease aid to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and about 35 other nations.

The Japanese saw the Aleutians as a place where they could put even more pressure on the United States, said Prof. Michael Faubion of the University of Texas-Pan American.

“It was the only U.S. territory occupied,” Faubion said. “It was embarrassing. They only sent 9,000 troops; they were trying to distract us. And they tied down 90,000 U.S. and Canadian troops at one point. They were keeping a close eye on them.”

The Japanese were pushed out of the Aleutians the following year, but the remains of the seven crewmen were never recovered until now.

Since the discovery in 2001, the remains have been recovered and taken to Hawaii where the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is attempting to identify the remains through dental and skeletal forensics.

“From what I understand, they are going to be able to ID these people,” Sanchez said. “If that doesn’t work, they’ll do DNA. The good part of the job we do here is that we get to resolve cases that have been unsolved.”

Sanchez said only one man’s family has been located; he’s working on the others, including Hall.

Anyone with information about Hall or his family should call Sanchez at (901) 874-2666 or e-mail him at