Arlington Heights man tracks down uncle lost in World War II
The day they died, Wilson Pinkstaff and his crew weren't even supposed to fly.
The Happy Legend was the standby plane on Dec. 5, 1942, the one waiting on the Laloki Airdrome tarmac at Port Moresby, New Guinea while the primary group of six bombers took off in search of the Japanese line near Lae.
But the fourth pilot to take off, Garrett Middlebrook, developed engine trouble almost immediately. Trailing smoke, he quickly returned to land.
Lt. Pinkstaff took off as Middlebrook touched safely down. The Happy Legend was a B25-C, a Mitchell bomber. She carried seven crew as she lumbered upward to join the other bombers and fill the hole in their formation.
The bombers ran into dense clouds over the Owen Stanley Range and the planes lost each other in the mist. One by one, they emerged out the other side. All but The Happy Legend. She was gone.
On Nov. 17, Gary Sellers and his 84-year-old mother, Zetta, stepped onto the lawn of Arlington National Cemetery, watching the horse-drawn caisson draw up that carried two caskets from chapel to graveside. They were joined by members of six other families, come from around the country to formally lay to rest the crew of The Happy Legend, shot down nearly 67 years ago in the New Guinea mountains.
A near cloudless day in the 60s, the caskets were laid side by side, one carrying the human remains of one crewman; the second holding personal artifacts recovered from the crash site and representing the five members of the crew for whom no remains were identified. A 21-gun salute was fired and a trio of A-10 Warthogs flew overhead.
For Sellers, of Arlington Heights, and his mother, a former longtime Park Ridge resident and teacher, it was the culmination of six years of research and nearly a lifetime of wondering.
Gary Wilson Sellers grew up looking at a picture of his uncle, who died at age 23. Zetta was unable to tell him much; her parents were so distraught at losing their only son they barely talked about it. In May 1940 they signed the enlistment that allowed Wilson Pinkstaff to leave the farm in Flat Rock, Ill., and go into the Army Air Force - he was not yet 21 - because despite his teaching degree from Eastern Illinois University, he told them he wanted to become an airline pilot. Besides, the U.S. was not at war.
"There were always pictures of him," Gary Sellers said. "I would look at them and wonder what he was like, this guy I was named for."
That years of research brought him, finally, to Arlington National Cemetery last week has given him contentment, if not exactly happiness.
"I was happy we found out what went on and what happened," Sellers said. "The burial is kind of anticlimactic for me, I don't see it as something I was looking forward to. But, it's great to be here and meet all these people."
The wreckage of the Happy Legend was first located in 1943, but it took until 2006 to bring remains and artifacts back to the States. It took another few years to organize a ceremony where all the families could participate.
Each family donated DNA samples, but in the end remains were identified of only two of the crew, neither of whom was Pinkstaff. One of them was buried in Louisiana, although his family also came to Arlington National Cemetery for Tuesday's ceremony.
What brought down the Happy Legend is speculative.
On pacificwrecks.org, Phil Maggart, brother of Pinkstaff's co-pilot, Charles Maggart, writes that Australian forces found the wreckage in February 1943 near the Kokoda Gap. The bombs were still on board, which indicates the plane was probably shot down. A large crater, filled with water, suggested the aircraft probably exploded in the trees.
The searchers had to abandon their reconnaissance because Japanese troops were prowling the area.
In his self-published book, "Air Combat at 20 Feet," Garrett Middlebrook says that on Dec. 5, 1942 he made a run over Buna in the morning, a single ship without fighter protection. He made three passes at 1,000 feet, dropping two bombs each time and getting machine gunfire in return.
"The afternoon of the same day I was scheduled, along with five other ships, to attack Lae," he writes. "It was our policy to prepare a standby ship and crew for a mission in the event any of the primary ships had to abort the mission.
"On that particular day Lt. Wilson L. Pinkstaff was the pilot for the standby ship ... as was customary, he taxied to the runway and checked out his engines as did the primary ships.
"I took off in number four position, but I knew I had serious engine problems even before I became airborne. Pinkstaff also became aware of my engine malfunction because I was trailing a heavy stream of smoke. I merely flew a square pattern at 800 feet and came back to the runway to land. As I was on my base leg for landing, Pinkstaff took off to fill my place in the formation.
"He was shot down on the mission and, of course, he perished along with all his crew."
The two-month battle for Buna was among the bloodiest in the Pacific war. On Nov. 16, 1942 U.S. and Australian forces attacked Japanese beachheads at Buna, Gona and Sanananda - the first assault in the effort to retake New Guinea. About two months later, in January 1943, the Japanese were pushed inland, but the casualties were huge, higher even than they would be at Guadalcanal.
In July 1961 The Happy Legend wreckage was visited by a team of Americans and Australians, guided by local villagers. A piece of metal with "Happ" written on it was uncovered, but investigators cut the trip short because the crater kept filling up with water.
Years passed and Phil Maggart pushed, and eventually The Happy Legend was among the World War II crash sites to be officially excavated for remains and personal effects. In 1995 the team found an unexploded 500-pound bomb. Investigators returned in 2004 and 2005 when they took out the aircraft's engine and landing gear, some human remains and a series of personal effects: an ID tag; Bowie knife; semiautomatic pistol; driver's license and coins.
Sellers said the Army's Casualty Assistance Office did the DNA checks, set up Tuesday's ceremony and paid to fly family members to Virginia and put them up in hotels.
Zetta Sellers says her older brother was the "kidder" in the family, who gave her the typical hard time. Initially, he was listed as missing in action. "That was what they informed my grandmother of," Sellers said. But in the early part of 1943, that was changed to killed in action.
Sellers said his family has achieved some closure with the discovery of the remains of the crash.
"My mom has been very encouraged by sort of putting an ending to some questions that she has had all along," Sellers said.