Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Fiji hands over lost pilot's remains

AP , SUVA

The remains of a US fighter pilot have begun their long journey home from a deep jungle ravine in Fiji, 64 years after his airplane disappeared during a World War II sortie.

A 12-member team from the Hawaii-based Joint POW and MIA Accounting Command on Wednesday accepted the remains of the man -- whose identity the US Air Force has yet to reveal -- from the men, women and children of remote Naivucini village, on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu.

"There is a family back in the United States that's been missing a family member for the last 60 years," Ambassador Larry Dinger, US envoy in Fiji, told the villagers during the emotionally charged handing over ceremony that left a number of villagers teary-eyed.

"Thanks to your effort, this family will now be able to close a sad chapter of their lives and that's very important," Dinger said.

When the pilot and his single-seater P-39 Airacobra fighter disappeared during a wartime mission on April 22, 1942, no traces were found despite an aerial search that lasted four days, US officials said.

Some 62 years later, Sailosi Delana and his cousin Paula Cagidomo stumbled on wreckage while hunting for wild boar on Aug. 28, 2004.

"We were following the Dokosamaloa creek deep into the jungle when Paula showed me the remains of what we then thought was the tail of an aircraft," said Delana, 33.

"We didn't see the remains of the pilot but I did see magazines of ammunition on the ground," he said.

He took 17 bullets back to the village and two days later reported their find to the police.

Team commanding officer Major Albert Tabarez and anthropologist Joan Baker agreed that from the wreckage and position of the pilot's skeleton, he could not have survived the crash.

His dog tag wasn't recovered but personal effects including a ring and a wallet containing a washed-out photo, were found at the wreckage site, according to locals.

US officials believe they know the identity of the missing pilot but aren't releasing his name or other details until the remains found in Fiji are identified through DNA tests and the family informed.

Tabarez said the identity of the pilot would be confirmed at a laboratory in Hawaii.

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