But one thing Annie Fagan did not live to see was Fred come home. She died in 1950. His remains came home this year.
Pvt. Fred G. Fagan was born on Oct. 21, 1918, on a farm in the country outside Piedmont. He never married and had no children. He lived in Piedmont until 1943 when he was drafted into the Army. He was on a plane with six others that crashed in 1944 in Burma and was not found until 2004, when the site was excavated. Fred and the six others finally received their due honor at a group burial service with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on July 15.
Fred Fagan was my uncle; I was born in 1952, eight years after Fred went missing. I grew up hearing that he was on a plane that disappeared in Burma and that no one really ever knew for sure what happened. I saw the letters that my grandmother got from the military reporting his fate. I saw the letters from family members of the other six men to my grandmother, all seeking to share information about what they learned about the seven men on the plane.
Fred was kept him alive in our collective memory for many years after he was reported missing and eventually declared dead. Our family had hope that somehow he might have survived and might return home to be with us once again. Family discussions for many years included stories about how maybe he parachuted out of the plane and was taken in by villagers or captured by the Japanese, and that he might someday find his way home. We eventually accepted his fate and thought we would never know what exactly happened.
Flying in Burma
In 2004, I was at work when I received a call from the Pentagon. The man on the phone told me that they thought they had found the crash site of the missing plane that included my uncle. I was speechless. They asked me to provide DNA to be used for identifying the human remains they found. I supplied them with my DNA and waited until 2009 for definitive word on the plane and Fred.
The U.S. Army sent two men in 2009 to visit me at my home to share with me two reports, one about the mission of the plane and one on the crash-site excavation. Only one member of the plane had human remains that were confirmed. Therefore, a group burial was planned for Arlington National Cemetery for 2010.
My wife and I then began going through the letters and other artifacts that I got at my mother’s death 20 years ago. We knew they were historical, but we never thought we would need them for anything. I began researching Fred and his service in World War II. He served as a member of Merrill’s Marauders, officially named the 5307th Composite Unit, that was a U.S. long-range penetration special forces unit in the South-East Asian Theater of World War II. The unit was famed for deep movements behind Japanese rear defenses and thrusts toward superior forces. They were composed of U.S. Army Rangers and were an all-volunteer unit that was first sent to India for training in 1943. Fred fought in six major battles, according to Brigadier Gen. Frank Merrill in a letter to my grandmother.
Allied Forces needed to control the airfield at Myitkyina, Burma, to remove the threat of Japanese fighter planes and deliver supplies to China. American forces could not provide the necessary supplies to defeat the Japanese in China without Myitkyina airfield. There were 500 of Merrill’s Marauders who had marched 65 miles with mules over rugged mountainous terrain, fought the Japanese and re-captured the airfield at Myitkyina on May 17, 1944. These men were weakened by hunger and disease from malaria, bloody dysentery, and/or scrub typhus from sleeping on infected areas in the mud. By May 23, they had gone three days without food.
On the morning of May 23, 1944, C-47-A No. 42-23510 of the 4th Troop Carrier Squadron lifted off from the airfield in Dinjan, India, with the mission of delivering desperately needed mortar shells and supplies to Myitkyina. When the plane left, the ceiling was 100 feet, visibility was one-quarter mile and there was rain. The plane never made it Myitkyina.
The more I learned, the more respect and admiration I developed for those who fought in World War II. I started to realize the sacrifices they made for the freedom of their families and fellow Americans. I started to appreciate that without the efforts of the military in this war, our world would be much different today.
A remarkable service
My wife Pam, my son Chris, and my daughter Rachel went with me to Arlington for the family visitation and burial service. We were joined by some of my cousins and their children. We met the family members of the other men in the crash and shared stories about those men and the experiences and emotions of their families.
Sitting next to the family members of the other men at the burial was an intense and surreal experience. I could see the Washington Monument on one side and the Air Force Memorial on the other as we faced the casket. We had marched more than a mile from the Old Post Chapel to the site along with a seven-horse caisson with the body party, army band, color guard and firing party. The air traffic at Reagan National Airport was halted long enough for a flyover of a C-17 Globemaster to honor these men. There was a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.” The band played “America” as the flag was folded. Each family was given a flag. The precision and choreography of this service was truly impressive.
We were proud that these men were finally laid to rest alongside 330,000 of their comrades within view of the Washington Monument and across the river from the Capitol and White House. We were extremely thankful that our government cared enough to bring these men’s mission to a close and see that they received their proper burial. We were also appreciative that there was closure for the families.
Appreciate what we have
Lt. Col. Rodney Lewis, commander of the 4th Airlift Squadron, the successor squadron for the one to which these men were attached, spoke at the family visitation. That squadron flies similar missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Antarctica, and it is the only airlift squadron permitted to transport nuclear weapons. Lewis told us we were family with them and that these seven men were their brothers. Again, my respect for our military was enhanced.
There were two original members of Merrill’s Marauders who attended the service. These men were near 90 years old. One was at the airfield at Myitkyina on the day the plane left India. Their stories brought the experience to life and further increased my admiration of these men.
This experience has helped my family and me truly appreciate what it means to be an American. It has helped me understand that we do not have it that tough, even if at times, things seem difficult. It has motivated me to be thankful for the comfortable and secure life we enjoy. It has made me more patriotic.
The remaining family members of these men finally received closure. We finally found out what happened to them and got them buried. I wish Fred’s parents and siblings could have participated in the experience of the discovery, explanation of what happened and burial ceremony. I wish that Fred could have known how proud we are of him.
Dr. Mark Fagan is head for sociology and social work at Jacksonville State University. To view Dr. Fagan’s website that details Fred Fagan’s story, please visit http://www.jsu.edu/socialwork/fredfagan/index.html.