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updated: 3/30/2013 6:46 PM

Mount Prospect pilot killed in WWII identified

Mount Prospect man crashed bomber in Papua New Guinea in 1944

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  • This item appeared on the front page of the Mount Prospect Herald on May 26, 1944, announcing John E. Terpning was missing in action.

    This item appeared on the front page of the Mount Prospect Herald on May 26, 1944, announcing John E. Terpning was missing in action.
    Daily Herald archive


The remains of an Army pilot from Mount Prospect who died in a crash in Papua New Guinea during World War II have been positively identified and will be buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, April 3.

Army 1st Lt. John E. Terpning's remains have been returned to his family, nearly 69 years after he died and almost 40 after a Royal Australian Air Force team discovered the wreckage of his plane.

Terpning was piloting a B-24D Liberator on a bombing mission from Nadzab, New Guinea, on May 7, 1944.

Mechanical problems delayed the craft from taking off from the air base and joining the rest of the attack formation. The plane and its 10 crew members were never seen after takeoff, and the War Department declared them all to be presumed dead in 1946.

Fast-forward to 1973, when a Papua New Guinea Forest Department official reported a wartime aircraft in the mountains northeast of the city of Lae.

In October of that year, the Australian team visited the site, confirmed that the wreckage corresponded to that of a B-24D and recovered human remains that were transferred to the U.S. Army Mortuary in Tachikawa, Japan.

Because of the limited technology of the time, the human remains could not be individually identified. All were buried as a group at Arlington National Cemetery the following year.

Though no Terpnings still live in the area, Mount Prospect Historical Society Director Greg Peerbolte found documents Friday connecting the late pilot to his brother, the well-known painter Howard Terpning, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz.

Howard Terpning strongly recalled attending his brother's first burial in 1974.

"It was a very cold, blustery day," Howard Terpning said. "It was certainly a very moving experience."

Though he will not be attending next week's second burial of his brother -- this time in an individual grave -- he will be sending his son, Howard Terpning said.

John Terpning, who was nearly 21 at the time of his death, was fulfilling a long-term plan through his military service, his brother said.

"All through high school, he trained for the military," Howard Terpning said. "He was a natural-born leader and president of his senior class."

Though his brother was presumed dead for 30 years, Howard Terpning considers the discoveries of 1973 to have played the greater role in uncovering the mystery of what happened to John.

But the subsequent work was also significant, he added.

"They found additional remains belonging to my brother that were identified by DNA," he said.

Those remains were found in April 2008, when a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command team was sent back to the crash site to recover wreckage, including radio call sign data that matched Terpning's aircraft.

Scientists from the team and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used forensic tools to identify Terpning's remains, including dental comparisons and mitochondrial DNA that matched the late pilot's brother.

According to the Pentagon, of the approximately 79,000 Americans unable to be recovered or identified after World War II, more than 73,000 remain unaccounted for.

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