A fallen U.S. Navy service member who was recovered 79 years after being killed during World War II due to the efforts of a nonprofit and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been laid to rest.
U.S. Navy Aviation Radioman First Class Wilbur Mitts was laid to rest in Seaside, California on Sept. 11, in advance of POW/MIA Recognition Day (Sept. 15).
Mitts, 24, a native of Seaside, was assigned to the Navy Torpedo Squadron 20 on board the USS Enterprise. On Sept. 10, 1944, Mitts and two other crew members took on a mission to conduct airstrikes against enemy targets in Malakal Naval District, Palau Islands. Their aircraft was struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire and crashed into water near Malakal. Efforts to recover Mitts’ remains were unsuccessful.
Following the war, the American Graves Registration Service, the organization that searched for and recovered fallen American personnel, conducted exhaustive searches of battle areas and crash sites in Palau, concluding their search in the summer of 1947. Investigators could not find any evidence of Mitts or his aircraft.
Project Recover, a nonprofit that is dedicated to locating and repatriating the remains of fallen American World War II service members, and the DPAA conducted six investigations from 2003 to 2018 that resulted in the location of a site associated with the incident.
“Our work is focused on providing healing and some form of closure to the estimated 5 million Gold Star MIA family members across the United States,” said Project Recover President and CEO Derek Abbey. “It’s our way of giving back to our nation and those who have sacrificed the most.”
The site was excavated in May 2019 and remains and material evidence were recovered. In September of 2021, a subsequent excavation was completed by Project Recover, where additional remains and material evidence were recovered.
The remains and material evidence were sent to the DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, for analysis, leading to the identification of Mitts on Feb. 23, 2023.
Abbey, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, had the opportunity to spend time with the Mitts’ family.
“They honored Wilbur and recognized Wilbur with the appropriate recognition,” he said.
Following Mitts’ memorial, Project Recover and the United States Navy Memorial held an event in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15 in honor of POW/MIA Recognition Day including a wreath laying, a movie screening of Project Recover’s To What Remains documentary and a panel discussion.
To learn more about Project Recover, visit here.
Reach Julia LeDoux at Julia@connectingvets.com.