Second Lt. Ernest Vienneau, whose plane was shot down in 1944, was laid to rest Saturday in Millinocket following a Catholic Mass and community supper that drew more than 100 people. Credit: Courtesy of Larry Ayotte via Maine Public

Scores of people gathered in Millinocket on Saturday to remember a man most had never met.

World War II pilot Ernest Vienneau was laid to rest in his hometown, after almost 77 years missing in action. The extraordinary homecoming of 2nd Lt. Vienneau was something his family thought would never happen.

A lot has changed in Millinocket since Vienneau went to the St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church as a boy in the 1930s. The paper mill where his father worked has shut down. Store fronts sit empty. The hymns at the church are different. Even the church building is different. But one thing was the same: the Vienneau family, with its many members, was sitting together right up front.

“I am teary eyed. I knew I wouldn’t control myself this weekend. I do my best to, but this was so important to his parents and to his siblings, you know for decades they wanted to bring him home and it’s been so many years. We didn’t think it would happen,” said Joyce Totten, who made the trip from Connecticut to say goodbye to an uncle she never got to know.

Totten thanked a crowd of local American Legion riders who helped bring her uncle’s casket back to Maine, and who came to pay their respects on his final journey, with a motorcycle escort

Vienneau was the fourth of 12 children. His parents and almost all of his siblings have died.

Before the funeral, many of his nieces and nephews — and grand- and great-grandnieces and nephews — who had flown in from all over the country, and many of whom had never met each other, were looking at photos and trying to recall stories about the Millinocket boy who liked to pick blueberries and go skiing.

Vienneau was just 25 when the B-17 Flying Fortress he was co-piloting was shot down over the Adriatic Sea in 1944.

He’d bought an engagement ring for a girl his family had not yet met, and he was looking forward to coming home on leave, but he volunteered for one last mission in November of that year.

Of the 11 crew members aboard, he was the only one who could not escape as the plane sank. Vienneau had been wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel, and the plane, with his body aboard, remained somewhere off the coast of Croatia, until a complex recovery mission involving multiple countries — years in the making — proved successful.

It was led by a little known agency in the Department of Defense called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“It is the most purposeful one I believe in the entire Department of Defense,” said Kelly McKeague, the agency’s director, who made the trip from Washington, D.C., for what he described as a rare occasion.

He said only about 7,000 missing WWII service members have ever been recovered leaving tens of thousands of families in the dark about their loved ones’ final moments. He said it’s a rare joy to be able to help such a family find closure.

“To have that curtain of uncertainty lifted, to now have that final answer, and more importantly to be able to celebrate his service, his sacrifice and, more importantly, him coming home,” McKeague said.

Joyce Totten said that’s something they didn’t believe would happen; they’d been told soon after Vienneau’s disappearance that his remains were likely unrecoverable. But she said she promised her mother anyway, before her death, that if his body was ever found, she would see that he was reunited with a family treasure; the pilot’s wings he’d earned only the year before his death.

“It’s going to be hard to give them up, but I will. That’s what my mother wanted. You know, we never thought we would be able to bring Uncle Ernest home, but 77 years later, here we are. Never give up hope on anything,” she said.

Vienneau was laid to rest — with his wings — at Saint Martin of Tours Cemetery in Millinocket, next to his parents, one of a select few.

Of the 79,000 soldiers who were listed as missing in action from World War II alone, more than 72,000 are still missing.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.