As much as we don’t like to think about it, death is a part of life. This is especially true in times of war. Over the ages, countless young people have laid down their lives in the name of one cause or another, often leaving behind grieving family members.
The best those family members can hope for is a proper burial for their loved one, and that their sacrifice will be remembered favorably by history. But far too often, victims of war are never returned home for one reason or another. When one man lost his life in the line of duty, his family would fight much longer than most to bring back his remains…
Jim was an 85 year old man who’d lived his whole life in Nashville, Tennessee. Like most folks in the twilight years of life, he spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the past. All in all, he’d lived a good life and really only had one major regret.
The only major thing he wished was different is that his older brother Harold could have been around to share that life. Jim didn’t talk much about his brother, who was long gone. He figured most people wouldn’t be interested in stories about him. But that doesn’t mean Harold wasn’t an important part of his life…
The two of them grew up on the acres of farmland that had been in his family’s possession since the revolutionary war. “We were pretty close,” Jim said. “Just 8 years apart. Eight years in the country is different than city life.”
Typical Big Brother
The brothers would spend their time riding wild horses and wandering across “great big fields and we were just talking, just him and me,” he said. “He had a spotted pony, a big pony, and one day he told me to get the gate open. I was barefoot and he shot me in the foot with a BB gun. He thought it was funny. He was just a regular big brother. He was my big brother.”…
Taking Part In History
But their relationship would be interrupted by a major moment in history, WW2. When the war began, Harold joined the Navy and eventually becoming a pilot. Jim was too young to enlist, just on the cusp of becoming a teenager at the time. It was difficult having his brother and best friend away from home, especially knowing the danger he would face.
The fears of losing his brother would become a dark reality when, in the summer of 1945, Harold’s plane would crash into a remote outcrop on Oahu during a night-flight training mission. When a search party found the crash site 3 days later, they buried his remains. Weeks later, another group returned and recited the Lord’s Prayer over the 21-year-old’s shallow grave…
After The War
Because the war was still on-going, the Navy was unable to devote the resources to returning Harold’s remains to his family. His bereaved parents and brother would have to wait until after the war to give Harold a proper goodbye. But at that time, they couldn’t possibly have known how long they would have to wait.
Though Harold DeMoss’ plane had crashed less than 40 miles from the Navy headquarters in Honolulu, it had come down in a remote area, separated from the nearest road by at least 7 miles of thick vegetation on rugged, steep terrain that was home to wild pigs. Immediately after the war, it took attempts by 2 separate search parties to find him…
But of the 400,000 Americans who died during WW2, 79,000 were unaccounted for at the end of the war. That was a lot of soldiers to track down and return and, in the time before Harold’s turn came, the charts and maps documenting the location of his remains were lost.
At first, the DeMoss family waited patiently, knowing that finding the bodies of so many lost service members was a daunting and difficult task. But as the ‘40s became the ‘50s, and then the ‘60s, their patience wore thin…
Over those years, they sent the occasional letter and placed the occasional phone call asking for updates on the state of the recovery without ever getting a useful response. Then in 1968, Harold’s mother Zora asked the military for an escort to the crash site. They rejected her request and instead offered a commemorative lithograph of Harold’s name on a wall of remembrance.
Decades Of Grief
Zora took that rejection hard, putting some of her feelings into the form of poetry such as “It would be sad but I’d like to see/ The grave where dear Harold lies/ And cover it with flowers/ Beneath Hawaiian skies.” “We never had anywhere to go,” Jim said. “That was the hardest part. It was hard for my mom. She didn’t have any place to go.”…
An Old Hillbilly
Zora and her husband would pass on before their son’s remains came back to them. By that point, “I’d given up,” Jim said. “I didn’t believe we’d ever get him back. They had him in their hands 2 days after the crash and they didn’t see fit to get him back to us. I figured nobody cared much for an old hillbilly who got killed in the war.”
Never Give Up
But Jim’s daughter Judy kept up the fight, despite how frustrating it could be interacting with the Department of Defense officials and congressional representatives. “One office offered to get us a flag,” she said. “I remember thinking we don’t want the friggin’ flag. That’s not what we’re after.” Searching for anyone who could help, she would find support from some people outside of government…
In 2011, Judy got in contact with the Hawaii Aviation Preservation Society, a volunteer historical group. They looked over the accident reports Judy had uncovered in her research, pinpointed a likely area and made a promise to her that they would find her uncle’s remains. They then started a series of excursions into the rugged hillside to find the crash site.
Found But Not Recovered
It would take them 9 attempts until they stumbled across a plane tire and some scraps of metal they believed belonged to Harold’s aircraft. They immediately sent the coordinates of their discovery to military officials but the Department of Defense would sit on that information for 7 years before taking action…
In 2013, the Department of Defense told Judy they had to do an environmental impact study before they could retrieve Harold’s remains, which would be done in 2014. Two years later, after hearing nothing, Judy contacted their senator and state representative. One told them the study would be done in 2 months.
It wasn’t until a story about the DeMoss’ struggle to get Harold’s remains was published in The Tennessean that any action took place. Finally, in August of 2016, a team was brought to the site by helicopter where they excavated and retrieved what was left of Harold’s bones, his Navy Pilot Wings, and the wedding ring from his brief wartime marriage…
Long Awaited News
When Judy got the news, she immediately called her father. “She said, you better sit down,” Jim said. “She said I got some good news. I just said, ‘Well. I didn’t think it would ever happen.’” A full 73 years after his death, Harold DeMoss was finally coming home.
The military offered a burial at Arlington National Cemetery but the DeMoss family declined. Instead, Harold would be buried in the family’s private cemetery, alongside men who served in every major US war since the Revolutionary War. “I’d be glad to have him and drive by,” Jim said while waiting for the remains to be shipped. “I can come by and maybe put flowers on his grave.”