“It is truly an honor and a celebration”: Nearly 80-year-missing WWII pilot from Minnesota laid to rest in Fort Snelling National Cemetery

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“He was really so young when he died,” said Cailey Hansen-Mahoney, Melville’s great-great-niece. “I think it’s so important for the military to make sure all of their dead receive a proper burial.”

A long and difficult journey for the deceased pilot and his family.

“There is just a hole where it should have been, and it was lost,” said Kari Hansen, Melville’s great-niece. “The sadness of it contrasted with the joy of finding him, celebrating him, honoring him and finding him.”

Melville’s funeral comes after 77 years of questioning, uncertainty and sadness for those who loved him.

We asked if today ended the family.

“Definitely,” Hanson-Mahoney said. “I mean, it’s always been a family legend that I hear about, Uncle Billy and his plane been missing in New Guinea since I was little.”

This WWII story of love, loss and recovery began when Melville was 20, fighting far from home in Minneapolis.

“He arrived in Australia in the middle of the summer of 1943, as a newly trained pilot, and they were on combat patrol missions,” Hanson recalls.

These patrols, halfway around the world, were over New Guinea, just off the Australian coast.

The island’s territory at the time was considered to be the site of some of the most gruesome fighting in the war.

Melville and two other pilots disappeared amid a severe tropical rain storm.

“He and three other planes went on a combat patrol mission on October 28, 1943, and three of the four never returned,” Hansen said.

“They were hit by bad weather and three of them crashed,” Massie added.

“They did some research the following days,” Hanson said. “They couldn’t find any remains of the other three pilots who came out. He was in a solo plane, a P-39 air cobra, and he was never found.”

Thus began a series of research, including reconnaissance missions, which began during and after the war and continued for decades.

Years passed without a trace of Melville or his plane.

“I worked with the Defense Ministry and the POW-MIA accounting agency. I got in touch with them, sent them many letters and asked them, please look for my – if please look for William, ”noted Massie. “I was pushing about it because I knew he was there. It had been 75 years then, and now is when he was identified, 77 years old.”

Then, on June 3, 2019, a recovery team searching for the site of another plane’s crash made a startling discovery.

“A few different items, they found a belt buckle, and they found his machine gun with the corresponding serial number and then, of course, there were some ossified remains,” Hansen said.

“They dig, and it was probably buried 8 feet underground… they put the earth on a screen, and put a pipe on it, and the ground will come through and whatever is left,” Massie added. “They had a piece of the skull, they didn’t know it at the time, but they called it bone remains and things.”

Just a few bone fragments, the family said, but enough for DNA testing.

“When they found some remains, I was asked to donate my DNA, they sent me a little tube that I put in my spit,” Massie said. “They wanted a man too.”

She says a positive DNA match took months, almost a year.

In July 2020, a military spokesperson confirmed that the remains belonged to Melville.

“He called me and he gave me the news on the phone, and I cried,” Massie said softly.

On Thursday evening, Melville’s extended family, some from as far away as California and Georgia, gathered at a funeral home in southern Minneapolis.

There, they honored his life and took a close look at his uniform, his medals – including a Purple Heart – photos from the war years and even his letters home.

Hansen-Mahoney and other family members in their twenties read these letters aloud to an enthusiastic audience.

“Today I was flying in formation and on take off I started to skid. I almost chewed on the tail of the lead ship,” said one.

Another: “I’ll be back home when this is all over and I start living a normal life again.”

“I think the most powerful thing for me is that when he died he was 20 and I’m 20 right now,” said Hansen-Mahoney. “He talked about all the things I can think of. I want to buy a car, I think I will get married someday. I want to settle down.”

The arc of Melville’s life has touched several generations of his family.

“I was born in 1942 and he was killed in action in 1943,” Massie said. “We never knew Billy but we got to know him from the photos we have and the letters we found in the trunk that my grandmother, his mother, had saved.”

During the funeral service there was silence, except for the dismal notes of the game “Taps”.

Then, finally, an overview of the formation of the missing man.

“I am sad that my mother and my grandmother, who cried a lifetime for their son, for the only son in the family,” said Massie. “I just wish they were here, but maybe they know it.”

Melville was finally home.

He was no longer one of the 72,000 Americans who served in World War II who are still missing.

“I just pray that more families can find a closure like we did and be able to honor their deceased as we are,” added Hansen-Mahoney.



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