SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Only a sole surviving sibling has a distant memory of a World War II pilot whose recently identified remains will be buried Saturday with full military honors in Utah.
U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird had more than a dozen brothers and sisters when he crashed over a Pacific Ocean island nearly 70 years ago. He disappeared over Papua New Guinea on a 1944 bombing run of Japanese airfields there. He was 25.
The crash site was discovered 12 years ago, but it wasn't until this summer that the Air Force was able to identify partial remains found there as belonging to Bird.
This week, about 150 distant relatives showed up at the Salt Lake airport as those remains — only a single leg bone was recovered — arrived inside a flag-draped casket on an airliner.
None of them knew Bird personally. His younger sister, Elaine Bird Jack of Eugene, Ore., is his lone surviving sibling and the only one who has a memory of him, said Lorna Bird Snyder, the airman's 66-year-old niece.
The 92-year-old Jack is in Utah for the burial at Evergreen Cemetery in Springville, Snyder told The Associated Press. She was the 13th child of the family; Bird was the 12th.
Jack provided a DNA sample that was used to identify her brother's fibula, the outer and thinner of the long bones of a lower leg.
Relatives are hoping a full excavation of the crash site will yield more remains, Snyder said.
The Air Force is moving cautiously because a 500-pound unexploded bomb is still attached to the A-20G Havoc bomber.
The remains of Bird's co-pilot, Staff Sgt. Roy Davis from New Hampshire, have not been found.
The crash site on a forested mountainside was discovered in 2001 by a Papuan national, who delivered the fibula along with engine identification plates of the bomber to an American recovery team.
The Air Force identified the bone as Bird's in July.
In the airman's last letter to his family, he described how he flew his light bomber barely above tree-top level, saying "we fly right in the leaves at times." It was written two days before his bomber went down March 12, 1944.
His niece spent years researching where — over the Pacific Ocean or New Guinea — his plane might have gone down. She compared boxes of the airman's letters against records of the American-Australian effort against the Japanese.
If not for Snyder's dogged efforts, the recovered bone might never have gotten a DNA comparison.
Vernal Bird was born Oct. 29, 1918, in Lindon to Walter F. and Christina Pearsson Ash Bird. He attended schools in Lindon and Pleasant Grove. The family later moved to Springville, another Utah County town, according to an obituary.
Although Jack is the only one who knew Bird personally, relatives never forgot him, Snyder said. They kept the airman's smiling portrait among family mementos.
"My parents of course loved him," Snyder said. "They instilled in us that Vernal was an honorable, brave, intelligent young man. We loved his picture."