ALBANY, N.Y. — A New York military aviation researcher got more than she bargained for on a dream trip to a battle-scarred South Pacific island — the chance to help solve the mystery of an American soldier listed as missing in action from World War II.
Donna Esposito, who works at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum in upstate Glenville, visited Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands this spring and was approached by a local man who knew of WWII dog tags and bones found along a nearby jungle trail. The man asked if Esposito could help find relatives of the man named on the tags: Pfc. Dale W. Ross.
After she returned home, Esposito found that Ross had nieces and nephews still living in Ashland, Oregon. A niece and a nephew accompanied Esposito on her late July return to Guadalcanal, where they were given his dog tags and a bag containing the skeletal remains.
Although it's not certain yet the remains are the missing soldier's, the nephew who made the Guadalcanal trip is confident they will be a match.
"It's Uncle Dale. I have no doubt," said Dale W. Ross, who was named after his relative.
The elder Ross, a North Dakota native whose family moved to southern Oregon, was the third of four brothers who fought in WWII. Assigned to the Army's 25th Infantry Division, he was listed as MIA in January 1943, during the final weeks of the Guadalcanal campaign. He was last seen in an area that saw heavy fighting around a Japanese-held hilltop.
When the Japanese evacuated Guadalcanal three weeks later, it was the first major land victory in the Allies' island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.
Ross' relatives handed the remains — about four dozen bones, including rib bones — to a team from the Pentagon agency that identifies American MIAs found on foreign battlefields. On Aug. 7, the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Guadalcanal, an American honor guard carried a flag-draped coffin containing the bones onto a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft.
The Pentagon said the remains were taken to Hawaii for DNA testing.
"Until a complete and thorough analysis of the remains is done by our lab, we are unable to comment on the specific case associated to the turnover," said Maj. Jessie Romero of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The other three Ross brothers made it back home, including the oldest, Charles, who served aboard a Navy PT boat in the Solomons and visited Guadalcanal in the vain attempt to learn about his brother Dale's fate.
Ross' niece and nephew made their trip last month with Esposito and Justin Taylan, founder of Pacific Wrecks, a New York-based nonprofit involved in the search for American MIAs from WWII. They met the family whose 8-year-old son found the dog tags and remains. They also were taken to the spot on a slope in the jungle where the discovery was made.
"I never met this man, but I was a little emotional," Ross, 71, said of the experience.
For Esposito, 45, finding evidence that could solve a lingering mystery in an American family's military history is the most meaningful thing she's ever done in her life.
"I can't believe this has all happened," she said. "It has been an amazing journey."