66 years later, missing WWII vet's dogtag returned to son

66 years later, missing WWII vet's dogtag returned to son

Edward Brennan Healy, 39, was the oldest man in his Navy squadron. He was almost the age of his pilot’s father. That, and the fact that he had eight children back home, probably helped earn him the nickname “Pop.”

A gunner on a B-24 bomber based in the Solomon Islands, Healy flew off into a South Pacific morning on his 67th mission on March 9, 1944. During the flight, he and the 10-man crew sent out a distress signal, then disappeared, somewhere near Kapingimarangi in the Caroline Islands. No sign of them was ever found.

But more than 66 years later, a few weeks before Memorial Day, a token from Pop Healy made its way back around the world to arrive in his son’s Stone Mountain mailbox.

“I’ve been in a business where I saw some pretty strange things,” said Joel Healy, a former police officer, “and this goes beyond strange.”

Joel’s brother, Michael Healy, 77, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said, “I tell you, I started crying as soon as I heard of it.”

Joel Healy, 71, who grew up in Chicago, was just 5 years old the last time he saw his father. The son doesn’t own a single letter from his father. The only photo he has comes from the Navy: a group picture of his dad’s squadron. But now he has something his father carried close to his heart: his dog tag.

“I was stunned,” he said. “I never had anything that belonged to my dad, and here I had something that he wore around his neck for a whole year.”

The nearly 70-year-old metal tag is oblong, nickel-colored and almost unblemished. It lists the usual military ID information: name, service, blood type and serial number. What it doesn’t reveal is the bizarre luck and dogged determination that brought it to light and back to the Healy family.

Man on a mission

Determination came in the form of merchant marine Shane Elliott, 44, of Washington state, who works on research vessels in the South Pacific. While he helps operate the ship, the scholars on board study climate change, investigating plankton blooms and other phenomena throughout the Pacific.

As a hobby, and a personal mission, Elliott also researches World War II sites, particularly in the Solomons, a chain of tiny islands near Australia.

Last year he visited an island called New Georgia, where Healy’s squadron was based, and met a resident named Graham Sale wearing a chain of six old dog tags. Elliott asked if he could copy the information on the tags. Working with stateside researchers, including MIA activist Ted Darcy, Elliott was able to determine that five of the soldiers named on the tags returned from the war alive. The sixth tag had belonged to Healy.

Sale told Elliott he had discovered the tag buried alongside what was once the runway for Munda Airfield, a critical facility during the Pacific war. Apparently, AOM Healy (that stands for aviation ordnanceman) must have lost a dog tag while based there.

Elliott offered Sale a modest price for the tag, between $5 and $7, then began searching for Healy’s relatives. A Chicago Tribune obituary for Healy’s widow, Anne Healy, who died in 1996, yielded the names of their children, five of whom are still alive. Elliott connected on the second phone call.

A former Marine, Elliott says it’s a matter of duty to reconnect the belongings of missing soldiers with their survivors. “I consider this a family heirloom,” he said of the dog tag. He refused any payment for his find, telling Joel Healy: “Your father paid the ultimate price.”

Lost seeking others

What drove a father of eight with multiple deferments to enlist in the Navy reserves? Joel Healy believes it was a burst of patriotism, but his older brother suggested it might have been a quest for peace and quiet. “He had five kids in diapers at the time,” including two sets of twins.

He was also struggling with alcohol and with a stalled quest to become a lawyer, said Michael Healy. Edward worked as a paralegal, but many of his children, including Joel and Michael, were sent to St. Mary Training School, an orphanage, when their father enlisted, because their mother couldn’t afford to care for them. (The younger children came back home eventually; the older two stayed in the orphanage until they joined the military themselves.)

Healy’s mission with the VB-104 squadron in New Georgia involved serving as a waist-gunner on a B-24 — in Navy parlance, a PB4Y-1 — one of the biggest bombers of the war with a 110-foot wingspan and room for 4 tons of ordnance. When high-altitude missions out of Munda failed to strike the Japanese ships they were hunting, the aviators adopted a different tactic. They began flying in at just 100 feet, or “mast height.” Sometimes they clipped antennas as they passed over the ships they targeted.

“The bombardier would have to be really good to release at a certain time,” said Ronnie Day, professor of history emeritus at East Tennessee State University, who is writing about the New Georgia campaign. “They came in so low that [any] anti-aircraft fire could bring them down.”

The B-24s patrolled 1,000 square miles at a time, and were virtually impossible to locate in the vast Pacific if they went down. In fact, Healy’s mission on March 9, 1944, was to search for another B-24 from his squadron that was lost two days earlier.

Countless planes were lost in the South Pacific, including one that Day identified at the peak of a mountain in Rendova, near New Georgia, an island famous as the setting for John Kennedy’s PT-109 story.

Finally, ‘some meaning’

In all there are 78,000 soldiers missing in action from World War II as of May 28, according to Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon’s POW-MIA Office. Missing in other conflicts: 125 from the Cold War; 1,719 from the Vietnam War; and 8,025 from the Korean War, all as of May 28, he said.

Greer said the Pentagon will not cease working to resolve those cases. “In the South Pacific islands there are more than 100 identified sites where we are sending our members on a weekly basis to do excavations and recoveries of those remains.”

Pop Healy was only a few weeks from the end of his Navy tour when he flew his last mission. He’d sent his wife, Anne, a letter telling her he’d be home with the Easter Bunny.

She kept watch for the telegram from the Navy notifying her that he was back stateside, her son recalls. “I remember my mother saying you watch for the telegram man, he’ll come in a black car,” said Michael Healy. “I happened to be outside skating, two or three days later, and here comes this car. We all started jumping up and down, because, you know, he’s home.”

He never came home. But a silver emblem of his life is now back with the family.

“I think the reason I cried when I heard it,” said Michael Healy, “is it gave some meaning to something, when the only meaning was tragedy.”

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