PARIS, Maine — Flags across the state flew at half-staff Saturday as Norway buried a native son 66 years after he died in the Philippines during World War II.
Second Lt. Robert S. Emerson, 25, a U.S. Army aviator, was one of five servicemen on board a B-25J Mitchell bomber that stalled and crashed into Palawan Field in the Philippines on April 3, 1945.
Emerson was the last of the five to be buried this year.
In an emotional service at Pine Grove Cemetery, Emerson was honored with a 21-gun salute and a flyover by an Air Guard KC135 tanker with the 101st Air Refueling Wing in Bangor.
“This is a glorious day, because 2nd Lt. Robert S. Emerson has finally come home to be with family, especially with his mother and father,” Emerson’s niece Patricia A. Beasley of Apex, N.C., said after the service.
Beasley, who was 5 years old when her uncle died, was referring to the family plot where Emerson’s mother, Alice, his father, George, and his brothers, Erlon and Stanley, are buried.
In the lot, the family had placed a memorial stone, hoping that one day their youngest son would come home, niece Nancy Illemann Rock said.
“It’s been a long journey — 66 years — and it finally happened,” Beasley said.
Before the service by Chandler Funeral Home of South Paris, the Army and the Rev. Michael Ring, World War II Air Force veteran Merle Glines reminisced about his childhood buddy.
The 88-year-old Glines of South Paris was a T5 gun ordnance man who installed machine guns on bombers like those Emerson flew.
Glines also served in the Philippines on Palawan and Leyte, and on Biak, an island in New Guinea.
“He was smarter than me,” Glines said of Emerson.
“I flunked out of flight school — washing out, they used to call it,” he said. “I didn’t do it in a purposeful manner, because I was dying to fly, but it’s a good thing I didn’t.”
Emerson, he said, was his brother’s age and they both played basketball a lot at the house.
“He was really a neat guy,” Glines said. “He was always nicer to me than my brother, probably because he didn’t have to put up with me.”
Watching the hearse carrying Emerson’s flag-draped casket arrive, Glines reflected on the 66-year effort by the U.S. Department of Defense to find the remains of the five servicemen, to bring them stateside, to identify them and to return them to their next of kin.
“It’s about time,” Glines said. “I’m amazed that the government finally got it right and got him home. It was a long time, but hey, he sure did his part.”
As Glines took a seat, Patriot Guard Riders stood single-file nearby, the flags they held flapping smartly in the breeze.
The Maine State Honor Guard walked the casket bearing Emerson’s remains to his grave.
The Rev. Ring read a few Bible verses, and then Emerson’s obituary, during which a bird of prey began to float on thermals nearby, prompting Beasley to later identify it as her uncle’s spirit.
Emerson enlisted in the Army on Jan. 27, 1942, for aviation pilot training. He flew several missions before the fatal one in 1945 in which he was the co-pilot, Ring said.
Remains of the five were initially buried on Leyte Island in early 1947, then exhumed and sent to Manila.
In 1949, they were sent to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo., exhumed again two years later when more remains were found and reburied for 57 years, Ring said.
In 2008, the remains were disinterred a third time and sent to Hawaii where they were identified through DNA matching.
Ring read a letter Emerson wrote to his sister, Lila, about two weeks before the fatal crash, telling her to buy flowers for their mother for Mother’s Day and he would reimburse her when he returned home in the summer of 1946.
He told her he had flown about 10 missions in about nine months of combat and was a few missions from going home.
After a poem and a prayer, Lt. Col. Peter Ogden, director of the Maine Veterans Services, said Emerson flew missions supporting Charlie Company from Norway and New Englanders in the 43rd Division.
He then read a citation as Gov. Paul LePage presented Beasley with a folded Maine flag and a Maine Gold Star service medal.
The honor guard fired off a 21-gun salute, the first volley of which startled everyone.
Maine Army National Guard bugler Spc. Dennis Haiss performed taps while Glines stood with the crowd and saluted Emerson’s casket.
As Haiss played the last few notes, Major Bill Dunn of the Air National Guard precisely timed his piloting of the refueling tanker over the treetops, slowly flying south to north over Emerson’s grave.
Some began to cry.
Then, they watched the honor guard remove the flag from the casket, fold it and present it to Beasley to close the service.
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