ARLINGTON, Va. -- They died together during a mission over Germany in 1944. For more than 70 years, the location of their remains was unknown. Wednesday afternoon, the five airmen were finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
"For over 150 years, our nation has honored her fallen warriors and patriots. These hallowed grounds are a lasting memorial to the men and the women who have honorably and faithfully served our country," U.S. Army chaplain Capt. Matthew Whitehead said during the burial ceremony in section 60.
"First Lt. John Liekhus, Tech Sgt. John Brady, Tech Sgt. Allen Chandler, Staff Sgt. Bobby Younger, Staff Sgt. Robert Shoemaker have all earned a resting place in these hallowed grounds."
The U.S. Army Air Forces airmen were members of the 323rd Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), Eighth Air Force. On Nov. 2, 1944, they were part of a nine-man crew that joined an armada of bombers on a mission to Merseburg, Germany and the Leuna Werke, a sprawling chemical factory that produced synthetic fuels.
Their B-17 was hit by flak, or ground, anti-aircraft fire, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. As the B-17 fell out of formation, German fighters attacked. Witnesses reported seeing the aircraft burst into flames and then descend rapidly. Three crewmembers survived the crash and were taken prisoner. One of the airmen killed was identified in May 1945; the other five crewmembers were declared missing in action.
In the raid, 38 bombers were lost and 481 were damaged, according to an April 2007 Air Force Magazine article. The USAAF estimated that as many as 500 Luftwaffe fighters attacked and almost 400 men did not return. Many were missing in action after bailing out of their aircraft.
The Nov. 2nd mission was the deadliest, the article explained, but not the last of the missions to Leuna. Crews risked a half-dozen more missions over an array of at least 1,700 flak guns.
In 1951, the American Graves Registration Command concluded that 26-year-old Brady of Taunton, Massachusetts, 23-year-old Chandler of Fletcher, Oklahoma, 29-year-old Liekhus of Anaheim, California, 23-year-old Shoemaker of Takoma Park, Maryland and 19-year-old Younger of McKinney Texas died in the crash, and confirmed that the location of their remains was unknown.
A few years ago, historians and analysts from the Department of Defense, German researchers and local government officials identified a potential crash site. Recovery operations were conducted from June to September 2015, then DPAA returned to the site in April and May, 2016. On both occasions, additional remains, material evidence and aircraft wreckage were found.
The five missing airmen were accounted for on Aug. 10, 2017.
Wednesday afternoon, rain preceded a chapel service at Arlington, so members of the Army's Old Guard wore long black raincoats. A casket with Shoemaker's remains was positioned near the burial site. Then the sky darkened, and the sound of a single drumbeat could be heard ahead of the horses pulling a flag-draped coffin that carried the commingled remains of all five airmen.
Relatives of each servicemember came to Arlington on Wednesday. During the flag presentations, the sun began to shine again.
"Our brothers served their country honorably," Whitehead said. "They paid the ultimate price for the cause of freedom. Today we honor them with military honors. In life they honored the flag, so today, in death, the flag will honor them."