Last updated 9/26/2023 at 9:53am
To return home is a gift. That seemingly trite observation didn't resonate with me until a flag-covered casket was slowly, solemnly lowered from the forward cargo hold of American Airlines into the hands of six white-uniformed Navy sailors. I was at the San Jose Mineta International Airport. The sky was clear, the air warm, and a hero was coming home. I and fellow cinematographer Bradley Lanphear respectfully moved within the scene to capture the moments on camera as they unfolded before us. The Navy casket bearers methodically ushered the casket into a hearse.
A two-hour procession to Seaside, California ensued. Atop every overpass along highway 101 were scores of firefighters and policemen; veterans flew American flags and raised stoic salutes at our passing motorcade. It was a welcome home long overdue. Seventy-nine years to be exact.
We were escorting the remains of Wilbur Mitts, who was a radioman in a Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber in the Pacific theater of World War II. He and his crew were part of the initial bombing of Operation Stalemate II, an attempt to weaken Japanese forces before the U.S. invasion of Palau. Their final act was lining up for a bombing run against the Japanese forces but antiaircraft fire was thick and precise. The last thing Mitts saw was enemy antiaircraft fire setting ablaze the sky around him before shredding apart his plane. Witnesses saw the plane spin out of control at 5,000 feet. No parachutes were seen. The wreckage was strewn over land and sea. He and two other crew members had their fate sealed on September 10, 1944. Into the blue depths of its waters, Palau would be his grave. He was 24 years old.
It would take more than seven decades to solve the mystery of Wilbur Mitts' whereabouts. But thanks to Project Recover, a team of dedicated men and women with the mission to see MIAs (missing in action) return home, had successfully researched, documented, and recovered the remains of Mitts in September 2021. That process took a total of 20 years. They have recovered the remains of 19 veterans in 22 countries since their founding in 1993. Their work continues today with a backlog of more than 700 actionable cases. They cooperate with the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) and the government, but work mainly with private funding and are the only organization capable of researching and recovering remains. That's a small group with a huge task. With over 81,000 MIAs recorded since World War II, the scope of the mission is staggering.
Project Recover invited me to capture the story of Wilbur Mitts in early September. My work with veteran storytelling has spanned five years, but the opportunity to document the homecoming of a 79-year-old MIA case was a new experience. To be invited into the folds of such a solemn moment was humbling, and I cherished the tender moments I caught in still photos and video. For me, this was one of the most meaningful stories I've told in my career. It's my hope that the stories will inspire people to support Project Recover and remember our MIAs.
The family was gracious to share with me an old footlocker filled with images and letters Mitts had sent home before his death. I saw tearstains dot the Western Union telegram expressing the Navy's deepest regrets for their loss. I photographed aged letters - with immaculate penmanship - as Mitts regaled his family of his aerial exploits and his longing for family. On September 3, 1944, he wrote his final letter. "I promise, I will come home one way or another," he once wrote.
It would be another year before the U.S. claimed victory over Japan, in September 1945. Mitts would never participate in the victory celebration. The ticker-tape parades, he wouldn't see. The love of his family, he would never feel again. His family became one of the 5 million MIA families who were left wondering and hoping for answers. All the family ever wanted was for him to come home.
On September 11, 2023, Mitts, with the help of Project Recover, kept his promise to come home and was laid to rest at his home in Seaside, California. Taps played, 21 guns blasted, and the family looked on as a 79-year mystery was finally laid to rest. Diana Ward, the niece who was also born three days after his death, clutched the folded flag once draped over his casket. There was a sense of finality in that cool ocean breeze as he was lowered into the earth. Mitts was home.
The day after the ceremony, I was landing at the Redmond Airport when I saw the Three Sisters on the horizon - a welcome greeting from many returning journeys. My wife and kids embraced me with smiles and love, the Central Oregon air was cool with the smell of fall. The smoke had cleared and the leaves were turning yellow as we drove into Sisters. It's always good to be back. I'm thankful to the men and women who gave it all so I have this blessing called freedom. It's a gift to return home.
To learn about Project Recover and their work to return MIAs to their families, visit http://www.projectrecover.org.