WWII Airman Laid To Rest Nearly 80 Years After Fatal Plane Crash
SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. - An airman killed during World War II was finally laid to rest surrounded by family and the southern Arizona Veterans community at Southern Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery (SAVMC) in Sierra Vista.
On September 15, Second Lt. Walter B. Miklosh, 20, was repatriated and interred at the cemetery in a special ceremony almost eight decades after his death.
“The word ‘repatriate,’ to return to one’s own county, has a special meaning for American service members,” Hill said. “We have been promised that should we lose our lives in combat on foreign soil, America will honor that sacrifice. Keep faith with our fellow warriors and families, and bring us back home, because we never leave the fallen behind.”
The Chicago native served as a navigator in the Army Air Forces in the 678th Bombardment Squadron of the 444th Bombardment Group. Miklosh’s missions provided supplies to soldiers that tied up 1.5 million Japanese troops, who would have otherwise fought the Americans in the Pacific, said Chaplain Richard Hill said at the service.
On June 26, 1944, the U.S. Army Air Force B-29 Superfortress plane carrying the 11-man crew crashed into a rice paddy in the village of Sapekhati, India as they made their way to Charra Airfield in West Bengal, India. The entire crew, including Miklosh, perished in the crash.
According to witnesses, just after 8:30 a.m., the “aircraft came down in a vertical dive” and that it “it had exploded immediately after contact in a water filled paddy field.”
The area where the crash occurred was infamous for being difficult to navigate in the best of conditions, as crews flew through unmapped territory rife with Japanese fighter pilots, the towering Himalayan Mountain range and unpredictable weather, said Hill.
“Second Lt. Miklosh navigated his Superfortress at high altitudes and in doing so was part of an historical achievement, unparalleled that time,” Hill said. “We know that flying over the hump was an extremely complex task, even for the best of us.”
Two days after the crash, rescue crews were only able to recover the remains of seven of the flight crew-- Captain James L. Schleicher, 1st Lt. Robert H. O’Shea, 2nd Lt. John N. Cumming, Staff Sgt. George F. Chesebro, Master Sgt. Warren E. Thieman, Sgt. Ralph H. Groff Jr., and Sgt. Chester A. Jennings. The four remaining airmen, including Miklosh, were determined to be unrecoverable in January 1948.
In the past 79 years since the fatal crash, numerous searches were conducted in an attempt to bring the airmen home, but to no avail. In 2018 and 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conducted a Joint Field Activity in Sapekhati and excavated the wreckage. During that search, teams found the remaining four airmen along with items belonging to each of them.
Miklosh was formally identified in May 2023.
Dozens gathered in Sierra Vista in September to honor Miklosh and bring him to his final resting place at SAVMC. Among the mourners were several family members, the only living relatives of the young airman who perished.
“None of us knew him; he died before we were born,” Miklosh’s niece and Sierra Vista resident Bonita Wolfe said. “And it was his death that caused my dad to join the Army so, by default, we love dad, we love Walter.”
“It was an honor to be here, and we’re very proud of his service, and we’re glad he’s finally back home,” added Judy Keating, another of Miklosh’s nieces.