2nd Lt. Ernest Vienneau (5th from left) grew up in Millinocket in a large French Canadian family. Credit: Courtesy of Robert Vienneau

A World War II pilot who was considered missing in action for more than 75 years will be buried with military honors in his hometown of Millinocket, a year after Defense Department divers recovered his body from the wreckage of a bomber plane off the coast of Croatia.

Second Lt. Ernest Vienneau, who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, will be buried on Oct. 9, escorted by members of the American Legion. A mass will be held that day at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church, Lamson Funeral Home Director Chip Lamson said.

Last fall, a team of U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency divers recovered Vienneau’s body from a B-17G Flying Fortress bomber plane 230 feet below the surface of the Adriatic Sea near the village of Rukavac.

Vienneau had been participating in a bombing mission over Maribor, Yugoslavia, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft guns on Nov. 6, 1944, near Vis Island. At the time, Vienneau had been stationed in Amendola, Italy, as a pilot with the 340th Bombardment Squadron, 97th Bombardment Group.

Vienneau was hit in the head with a flying piece of flak and is believed to have died “instantly,” according to his nephew, Robert Vienneau, and a forensic report.  

The agency officially accounted for Vienneau’s remains in April. DPAA is a Defense Department agency that tracks and recovers military members who are missing in action or prisoners of war.

Vienneau was born in 1919 and grew up one of 12 children in an Acadian Catholic family in Millinocket. Robert, 79, who now lives outside of Houston, never met his uncle.

“The family didn’t talk much about the loss,” Robert Vienneau said. “He was training in the States, then went overseas and never came home.”

“My grandfather was quite bothered by it,” he said, referring to Ernest’s father, but he only mentioned his late son a few times. Growing up, all of his eldest cousins were too young to have remembered the lieutenant, who was 25 when he died. All he knew about his uncle was that he had died in the war.

U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Ernest Vienneau of Millinocket, ME. A Defense Department agency recovered his body in October 2020 from a B-17 bomber plane near Vis Island, Croatia. Credit: Courtesy of Robert Vienneau

At least four of Ernest’s siblings also served in WWII, said his grand-niece, Chelsea Carbonell, who extensively researched her family tree. The loss of Ernest was acutely felt.

“In Millinocket, back then, when you sent a boy off to war, it was the town’s boy, not just Joseph and Gertrude’s boy,” she said, referring to his parents.  

After he was struck, crew members stowed Ernest Vienneau behind the flight deck to protect him as the plane went down after running out of fuel, according to a DPAA recovery report.

After crash-landing the plane off the coast of Vis Island, Vienneau’s crew members were unable to retrieve his body from the B-17 plane as it sank. All of the other crew members survived, the DPAA report said.

Vienneau’s body would rest there undisturbed for another 72 years before British photographer Steve Jones took a photo of the plane wreckage during a dive and discovered Vienneau’s remains. He found Vienneau’s name with help from Croatian historian Daniiel Frka.

In early 2017, a friend noticed the photo caption mentioning Vienneau’s unusual name and passed it to Robert, who was working in London at the time. Robert had found his uncle’s name among those listed in the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, which memorializes World War II soldiers who served in Italy.

A rosette will be placed by Vienneau’s name there to indicate he has been found, the DPAA said.

“It was amazing,” Robert said of learning that his uncle’s body had been found. “A lot of this was serendipitous.”

In 2018, DPAA and Croatian Navy divers began looking for a B-24 that had sunk a mile from the B-17 wreckage. Robert emailed one of the divers to ask that they lay flowers in his uncle’s plane.

Due to bad weather, the divers ended up pausing that mission and instead dove and found the B-17 bomber, said Kirk Wolfinger, a South Portland-based filmmaker who shot a PBS documentary about the B-24 search and was present when the divers found the B-17 and Vienneau’s remains.

“He was exactly where the crew had left him,” Wolfinger said.

Vienneau will be buried in Millinocket Cemetery, near his family members. A memorial headstone is already in place, his nephew said.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.