By CHRIS CAROLA, Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Nearly 75 years after Brig. Gen. Kenneth Walker disappeared during a bombing mission over a remote Pacific island, his son is pushing for renewed interest in finding the crash site of the highest-ranking recipient of the Medal of Honor still listed as missing from World War II.
Walker was posthumously awarded the military’s highest decoration for repeatedly accompanying his units on dangerous bombing missions, including his last, when he went down with 10 other men in an Army Air Forces B-17 over the island of New Britain in January 1943. Two survived by bailing out and later died in captivity. Walker and the eight others remain listed as missing in action.
Walker’s son, Douglas Walker, a retired New York ad man-turned-political consultant, met with Pentagon officials earlier this year to provide information from a team of independent experts that he hopes will prompt U.S. military officials to authorize a new search for the downed bomber.
“The cause is to bring back everybody,” Walker, of New Canaan, Connecticut, told The Associated Press Thursday. “While my father’s career helps heighten the profile of this case, he’s no more important than anybody else on that plane.”
Friday, at Yale University in New Haven, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, presented the younger Walker with a copy of a resolution he plans to introduce in Congress honoring the airmen’s sacrifice.
“We must honor their memory through continuing this search to fulfill our nation’s promise to finally bring these heroes home,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
In the summer of 1941, while war raged in Europe but before the U.S. entered the conflict, Kenneth Walker was one of four Army Air Forces officers tasked with formulating a plan to attack Japan and Germany from the air. The plan they wrote in nine days, known as the Air War Plan, was considered a key component in the eventual Allied victory.
Sent to the Pacific to lead a bomber command after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 44-year-old Walker was known for going along during bombing missions, something few generals did. It earned him the respect of the bomber crews but proved to be his downfall.
During a mission over New Britain on Jan. 5, 1943, he was flying as an observer aboard a B-17 nicknamed the San Antonio Rose when it was attacked by enemy fighters.
Other bomber crews reported last seeing the plane with one of its engines burning and Japanese fighters in pursuit. The B-17’s co-pilot and another officer serving as an observer parachuted from the plane and landed in the jungle. They were captured, interrogated and later executed or died in a prisoner of war camp.
Wartime searches for the plane’s wreckage turned up nothing. All 11 members of the crew were officially declared dead in December 1945. None of their remains have ever been found.
Douglas Walker said he has been trying for more than 25 years to get the U.S. military to search for the crash site. In 2012, the Pentagon agency that accounts for the nation’s war dead killed on foreign soil sent investigators into the eastern section of New Britain, a jungle-covered, mountainous island that’s part of Papua New Guinea.
But Walker says an independent team of WWII experts contends the crash site actually is in the rugged mountains miles from the area the U.S. team canvassed.
Walker said he presented that information last year to Pentagon officials, who expressed interest in the findings. But he said that by the time a follow-up meeting with representatives from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency was held last summer, that interest had waned.
DPAA didn’t respond Thursday to a request for comment on the San Antonio Rose case. But in response to inquiries made by the AP earlier this year, the agency said the independent team’s theory on the crash site’s possible location “is plausible.”
“More investigation is required in order to locate” the plane, a DPAA official said in a June email.
Sara Winters’ Aunt Eloise was married to Lt. Col. Jack Bleasdale, one of the two men who bailed out. Winters, of Del Rio, Texas, praised Douglas Walker’s efforts on behalf of the surviving relatives of the missing airmen.
“I just have such respect for him and the work he’s done,” she said.
Walker was 13 days shy of his 10th birthday when his father’s plane disappeared. His brother, now 90, lives in Toronto. Douglas said if the Pentagon won’t actively look for the San Antonio Rose, he may consider organizing a private search effort.
“I don’t want to give up,” he said. “I’m 84 and I think at some point we have to find some way to make it happen.”