MARYSVILLE, Ohio -- The cemetery superintendent says the small, four-sided headstone at the Porter family plot, with its geometric shapes and a lone heavy crystal cemented at its center, is one of the most unusual he has seen.
There, tucked under one of the majestic trees for which Oakdale Cemetery got its name, the monument marks the spot where the parents and brother of Capt. John “Blackie” Porter are buried. Porter’s name is carved on one side, between the dates of 1916 and 1943, but his plot is empty.
That’s a darned shame, said Marysville Mayor J.R. Rausch.
So that’s why this summer Rausch pulled a community committee together that raised $44,000 from businesses, residents and veterans groups to help fund a private expedition to excavate a remote site in the Arunachal Pradesh province of northeastern India. It is there that an Arizona-based adventurer named Clayton Kuhles -- who says he has reached and documented 22 downed aircraft sites and accounted for more than 190 formerly missing or killed in action U.S. personnel -- believes that on a trek in 2011 he found the site of Porter’s B-25. The airplane was shot down on Dec. 10, 1943, during World War II. No remains have been recovered from the site.
“It’s been a waiting game for 76 years,” said 74-year-old Ellen Vinson, who lives in Florida. Vinson’s mother was married to Porter, whose plane went down on their second wedding anniversary. “It’s time to bring John Porter and the others home.”
Porter was a trailblazer. A pilot who learned how to fly before he left Ohio State University to join the Army Air Corps, he once wrote in a letter to his bride that he was going to make history with the new squadron he had hand-picked and led:
“Honey, I have missed you something terrible and would give anything to be with you right now, but I have a far more important job to do and I’m not going to be content until it’s done. I was chosen out of this whole Theater to take over this job and run it as I see fit, which is quite an honor and, Darling, I am going to run it and make such a name for the outfit that you will be hearing about it back home.”
He did just that. During just three months in WWII, the crew known as “Blackie’s Gang” was credited with saving 127 airmen from 58 crash sites.
There were six men aboard Porter’s airplane that December day, and only one -- co-pilot 2nd Lt. James F. Spain -- parachuted out. The crew who died with Porter were radio operator Staff Sgt. Walter R. Oswalt; Gunner Staff Sgt. Harry D. Tucker; Maj. Ralph L. Dewsnup, flying as a passenger and not part of the regular crew; and flight engineer Sgt. Harold W. Neibler.
Neibler and Porter weren’t just war buddies, though. They had attended Marysville High School together. Played football together. And eventually they died together.
This mission to find any remains at the crash site has been a long time coming for Neibler’s niece, 78-year-old Sharon Neibler Kuntz, of Columbus’ Northwest Side.
Kuntz said her grandmother, Margaret Elizabeth Neibler, was active in the Gold Star Mothers organization and dedicated to veterans groups because she had felt the pain of losing a son to war.
“All the years Uncle Harold was MIA, she never gave up hope that they would find him someday and bring him back,” she said. “Just like my grandmother, I’m not going to give up until they find him.”
But such a mission isn’t cheap. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is responsible for recovery operations of U.S. personnel, including more than 72,000 still unaccounted for from World War II alone. The agency did not return calls about this specific recovery, but Vinson said the mission is so risky that it has not been a government priority.
Kuhles told Ellen Vinson that he could make it with Indian trekkers and his own volunteer crew for about $70,000. The families raised about $28,000 and the efforts in Marysville netted $44,000. Kuhles left in November and will be joined in December by volunteers John Schweikart, an archaeologist and historian from Columbus, and his wife, Ohio State University professor and forensic anthropologist Cheryl Johnston.
Vinson is confident that remains will be recovered, sent to the DPAA and positively identified. The money raised beyond the $70,000 will help to honor and bury Neibler and Porter when they are returned home to Marysville.
“If Clayton’s crew goes up there and digs through everything with a fine-tooth comb and finds nothing, I’ll be OK,” Vinson said. “I’ll know every effort was made and hundreds more people will know what heroes those men were.”