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It only took three quarters of a century.
In 1944, Vienneau was a young pilot from Millinocket serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He was flying a bombing mission on Nov. 6 when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed off the coast of Croatia. He was hit in the head with a piece of flak and is believed to have died instantly, according to a family member and a forensic report.
Vienneau’s crew members were reportedly unable to get his body out of the sinking B-17 plane, and he had officially been considered missing for over 75 years. His long-awaiting homecoming started last fall, when divers from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovered his body from the sunken Flying Fortress. That agency, a part of the Department of Defense tasked with recovering U.S military members who are listed as missing or as prisoners of war, officially announced in August that Vienneau had been accounted for in April.
And on Oct. 9, Vienneau finally was laid to rest in Millinocket.
“I am teary eyed. I knew I wouldn’t control myself this weekend,” Joyce Totten, a niece of Vienneau who never met her uncle, told Maine Public. “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.”
According to his recent obituary, none of his many siblings survived to witness this homecoming, though one of their widows is still alive. Grand-niece Chelsea Carbonell has done extensive family research and found that at least four of his siblings also served in World War II. His loss was felt strongly, she said.
“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 told the BDN, referring to Vienneau’s parents.
That “town boy” mentality is encapsulated in several clippings from old editions of the Bangor Daily News. A search through those archives shows several updates on Vienneau’s military service, including an entry in “News of Aroostook County and Northern Maine Communities” from Jan. 7, 1939.
“Ernest Vienneau, stationed at Fort Wright. Fisher’s Island, New York and Patrick Vienneau, stationed at Fort McKinley, in Portland, have returned to their posts after spending their Christmas leave with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Vienneau, Somerset street,” this paper wrote at the time. It was not the only such update.
The Jan. 21, 1943 section “Here and There” included mention of Vienneau receiving his pilot wings. More than 75 years later, Joseph and Gertrude’s boy — the town’s boy — is back in Millinocket. And he’s been reunited not just with his town and his family, but with those wings he earned in 1943.
Totten, Vienneau’s niece, said she promised her mother before her death that, if he was ever found, she would reunite him with those wings that had become a family treasure.
“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,” she told Maine Public. “Never give up hope on anything.”
We also hope this meaningful closure is possible for the thousands of other families of American servicemembers who remain missing from conflicts throughout our country’s history. According to the DPAA, and highlighted by Vienneau’s family in his obituary, that number is over 80,000. Most of the missing are from World War II.
And according to the agency’s website, which includes a breakdown of those numbers by state, Maine has over 450 people still unaccounted for. Hopefully more will join Vienneau as accounted for.
“Many thanks to the DPAA and their teams for their unrelenting work in finding Ernest and other lost service men and women,” said Vienneau’s obituary. “Our family is grateful that we have been fortunate to receive the remains of Ernest and be given the opportunity to honor his service.”
“His parents and siblings always held out hope that he would be found. Finally, we have brought him home,” the obituary continued. “We celebrate Ernest and his life well lived and brave service and sacrifice for God and his country.”
Amen to that. Welcome home.