For two decades after her son's bomber went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, Vella Stinson faithfully wrote the U.S. government twice a month to ask if his body had been found — or if anyone was looking.
The mother of six strapping boys went to her grave without the answer that has finally reached her two surviving sons 65 years later: the remains of Sgt. Robert Stinson are coming home.
Military divers recovered two pieces of leg bone from the wreckage of a B-24J Liberator bomber found at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of the island nation of Palau. DNA testing showed the femur fragments belonged to the 24-year-old flight engineer who died in combat on Sept. 1, 1944.
Stinson's remains arrived under U.S. Air Force escort Wednesday and will be buried Friday at Riverside National Cemetery with full military honors. In between, the body will be kept at a mortuary less than 100 yards from the home where Stinson grew up with his brothers.
"He's not someplace on a little island or at the bottom of the ocean. He's home," said Edward Stinson, who was 9 when his brother died.
For Robert Stinson, the journey home was far from a sure thing.
Stinson's family knew only that his bomber had gone down in the Pacific Ocean. The government politely responded to his mother's letters but said again and again that no new information had surfaced.
The family learned that Stinson, who joined the Air Force right out of high school, won several medals in the summer of 1944 for participating in dangerous attacks on Japanese airdomes, military installations and enemy ships.
In 1994, a nonprofit group of adventurers and scuba divers began to search for the missing bomber off the waters of Koror, Palau's biggest island. The 15-member group, called BentProp, travels to the island nation each year for a month to search for some 200 missing U.S. World War II aircraft.
Half of the wrecks scattered in the waters around the archipelago's 300 tiny islands have missing crew members associated with them, said Daniel O'Brien, a member of the BentProp team. Stinson's plane, dubbed "Babes in Arms," had 11 crew members — and there were eyewitness reports of where it went down. Eight crew members went down with the plane; three parachuted out, but were captured by the Japanese and are believed to have been executed.
The group attended reunions of Stinson's bomber squad and the aging veterans told them where they thought they had seen the plane go down as the rest of the formation raced back to base at 200 mph. BentProp members methodically searched that area for six years, but found nothing.
Then, in 2000, several members of the group doing more research stumbled upon obscure black-and-white aerial photos in the National Archives that were taken by a crew member aboard another bomber just moments after Stinson's plane went down. The team thought it odd the photographer had taken shots when no bombs were falling, and then realized the pictures were probably an attempt to document where the bomber crashed.
The pictures indicated a splash zone eight miles from where BentProp had been looking.
An elderly fisherman bolstered that evidence: he had seen plane wreckage in that area while spear-fishing about 15 years before.
The team dove the site in 2004 and instantly hit a jackpot: a B-24 propellor at 30 feet and then the plane, broken in three parts around a coral head where it had sat for more than 60 years. Debris was scattered at up to 70 feet deep.
The divers quickly turned over their findings to the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, the government agency that searches for U.S. prisoners of war and missing soldiers.
Military divers soon confirmed the plane's identity and recovered hundreds of items from the ocean floor, including dozens of tiny bone fragments, a rusted metal eyeglass frame, a tangled parachute cord attached to singed parachute, a shoe sole, coins, dog tags and one intact shoelace.
In 2006, Edward Stinson and Richard Stinson, the other surviving brother, gave DNA samples. On Feb. 1, Richard Stinson got the call: their brother, the 6-foot-4 clown with curly hair and a love of sports and poker, was finally coming home.
Four other missing crew members were also identified and are being returned to their families. Three could not be identified, but the remaining bones will be buried together at Arlington National Cemetery next spring.
"There's finally an ending to it. We never expected something like this," said Richard Stinson, now 87. "We knew that three of them had gotten out of the plane and ... you always hope that the three that got out, that one of them would be him and that maybe he survived."
With Stinson's remains coming home, his brothers are overwhelmed with the memories they have stored away all these decades — memories that, until now, are all they had. And, after years of imagining their brother lost and alone at the bottom of the ocean, his brothers have finally found their own peace.
"He hasn't been lonely the last two, three weeks. He has risen," said Edward Stinson. "Welcome home, brother."