Biden: cannibals ate my uncle

Biden touches the wall near his uncle's name, Ambrose J Finnegan Jr., who died in WWII
Joe Biden touches his uncle's name on the war memorial in Scranton, Pennsylvania - Alex Brandon/AP
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Joe Biden’s talent for embellishment is legendary.

The US president’s fondness for tall tales has seen him variously claim, then walk back, anecdotes about his house burning down and even being arrested while trying to visit an imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

But Mr Biden’s propensity for exaggeration took on new heights this week when he implied his lieutenant uncle may have been eaten by cannibals in what is now Papua New Guinea during the Second World War.

“He flew single-engine planes, reconnaissance flights over New Guinea,” Mr Biden said of his maternal uncle, 2nd Lieutenant Ambrose J Finnegan.

“He had volunteered because someone couldn’t make it. He got shot down in an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time.

“They never recovered his body. But the government went back, when I went down there, and they checked and found some parts of the plane and the like.”

In fact, official war records dispute all of Mr Biden’s assertions about his uncle’s fate during the flight on May 14, 1944.

Lt Finnegan was not flying the plane, nor was it shot down.

Moreover, investigators found no evidence he emerged from the wreckage, let alone encountered cannibals or indeed any other inhabitants in the Pacific islands.

“For unknown reasons this plane was forced to ditch in the ocean off the north coast of New Guinea,” according to records held by the Pentagon’s Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Accounting Agency.

A report on the missing A-20 Havoc was filed to the US war department on May 17, 1944, according to the National Archives, which collates historical US government documents.

It registers three crew and one passenger, identified as Lieutenant Finnegan, on board.

The aircraft departed Momote Airfield on Los Negros Island and was en route to Nadzab Airfield, New Guinea, the record states.

“Both engines failed at low altitude, and the aircraft’s nose hit the water hard.”

Far from being on a reconnaissance mission, as Mr Biden suggested, his late uncle Lt Finnegan was on a “courier flight”.

There were two other fatalities: the pilot, 1st Lieutenant Harold R Prince; and technical Sergeant Ashford H Cardwell, who was the gunner on the flight.

All three men failed to emerge from the sinking wreck and were lost in the crash, the official record states. A fourth, an engineer, survived and was rescued by a passing barge.

An aerial search the next day “found no trace of the missing aircraft or the lost crew members”, the POW/MIA agency said.

Lt Finnegan, it added, “has not been associated with any remains recovered” and remains unaccounted for.

Ambrose Finnegan died flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1944
Ambrose Finnegan died flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1944

Mr Biden’s version of how his late uncle met his end may have been inspired by the infamous tale of a Rockefeller heir who vanished in the same region.

Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old Harvard graduate and son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, vanished in western New Guinea in 1961 while on a trip to collect wooden carvings of the Asmat people for a museum.

His boat capsized on the way, and he was reported to have swum towards the shore.

His disappearance captivated the world’s media, and later led a researcher to claim in a book that Rockefeller made it to shore and was eaten during a ritual by the Asmat.

Andrew Bates, the White House deputy press secretary, said the president was “proud of his uncle’s service in uniform”, but did not address the discrepancy between his and the Pentagon’s version of events.

Mr Biden’s press team are often asked to clarify some of the president’s anecdotes, such as when he claimed while meeting with hurricane victims that his Delaware home burnt down “with my wife in it”. In fact, contemporary news reports state the fire caused no injuries and was “contained to one room”.

A US air force A-20 Havoc, the type of aircraft flown by Lt Finnegan
A US air force A-20 Havoc, the type of aircraft flown by Lt Finnegan

Mr Biden also claimed multiple times during the 2020 campaign that he was arrested in South Africa for trying to see Mandela, who at the time was being held as a political prisoner on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town.

Following press scrutiny, Mr Biden amended his story to say he was “stopped” at the airport while traveling with a Congressional delegation, an account disputed by others on the trip.

Mr Biden’s recall of facts was severely criticised by a special counsel investigation into his handling of classified documents in February, which characterised him as an “elderly man with a poor memory”.

The 81-year-old president was in his birthplace of Scranton as part of a three-day 2024 campaign tour in the critical state of Pennsylvania, and told supporters he had stopped by the city’s war memorial during his visit.

“I wanted to see where “Uncle Bosie”, Ambrose J Finnegan, where his name was etched,” the president said.

He drew a contrast with Donald Trump, who was reported to have referred to slain US soldiers as “suckers and losers” during his first term, a claim he denied.

Mr Biden said: “As I was doing that today, I was reminded of what my opponent said.

“‘Suckers and losers’.  That man doesn’t deserve to have been the commander-in-chief for my son, my uncle.”

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