BILLINGS, Mont. — The remains of two missing airmen have been accounted for 70 years after they disappeared when their plane went down over Papua New Guinea during World War II, U.S. military officials said.
The remains of 1st Lts. William Bernier and Bryant Poulsen were identified through DNA and other evidence collected from the crash site in a forest on the Pacific island nation, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan with the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office.
Bernier was from Augusta, Montana, and Poulsen from Salt Lake City, Utah.
On April 10, 1944, their B-24-D Liberator nicknamed "Hot Garters" took off from an air base in eastern Papua New Guinea. It was one of 60 B-24s tasked with bombing anti-aircraft positions around Japanese airfields, according to PacificWrecks.com, a nonprofit group that documents details on military personnel missing in action from the Pacific Theater.
Poulsen piloted the 28-ton bomber while Bernier was the bombardier, stationed in a glass cockpit in the aircraft's nose and responsible for sighting and releasing its bombs.
Their plane went down after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over the city of Madang, Morgan said.
Four of the 12-member crew exited the aircraft after it had been hit. Those men were captured by the Japanese and executed, Morgan said. The remaining crew, including Poulsen and Bernier, went down with the aircraft.
Their remains were accounted for using mitochondrial DNA — which can be compared to DNA from living relatives — and "circumstantial evidence," according to Morgan. Further details were not provided.
Several other crew members also have been recently accounted for, but their names and other specifics were not immediately released because relatives have not yet been notified, Morgan said.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in WWII, more than 400,000 died during the war and more than 73,000 remain unaccounted for, according to the Defense Department.
Bernier's niece, Sandi Jones, said she plans to bury his remains in Augusta in September. She said that after his disappearance, Bernier's mother refused to discuss the matter, hoping that he would one day return to the family's ranch.
"He was a Montana boy, so that's where he should be," Jones said.
Bernier, whose nickname was "Laddie," enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Force on Dec. 10, 1941 — just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, according to his enlistment records on file with the National Archives.
He was not married, worked before the war in the forestry industry and attended three years of college, the records show.
Poulsen enlisted April 17, 1942. He was unmarried and had two years of college. His family declined an interview request through defense officials.
The airmen will be buried with full military honors.
Michelle Price and Lindsay Whitehurst contributed from Salt Lake City.