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This week, Arlington National Cemetery will hold a funeral service 67 years in the making, as a group of airmen from World War II receive a burial with full military honors. Surviving family members are journeying from across the country to attend the burial.
Joyce Dawson is one of them. She's traveling from Rockford, Ill. to pay respects to her uncle, Robert Reginald Bishop, a second lieutenant in World War II.
Dawson is 82 years old, and she says as a girl, she was very close with her Uncle Bobby; he was just nine years her senior. He was a compassionate and selfless young man, she says, so she wasn't surprised when he volunteered for service. But, he was leaving behind a brand new wife.
"They were only married three or four months," she says. "And his wife was only five years older than I was! By that time I was 14 going on 15. And we met her, and then he got shipped overseas."
That was the last time Joyce Dawson saw her Uncle Bobby. The second lieutenant was just 24 years old when he flew his second mission over Germany. It was April 29, 1944, and somehow, the B-24J Liberator aircraft he was piloting... went down.
There were 10 men on board; all 10 died that day. Back home in Illinois, more than 4,000 miles away, Robert Bishop's family had no idea.
Woman finds MIA military uncle
"He was missing in action for many years," says Dawson. "You go to bed, dreaming, saying, 'He's still alive somewhere. He's got amnesia, or he's in a German war camp or some farmers have taken him in and he's still trying to get home.' And you say that to yourself for years and years..."
And that's exactly what Dawson did, until finally, in 2003, a German farmer located the site of the B-24 crash, and recovered human remains, which he turned over to U.S. officials. Two years later, a J-PAC team began to excavate the site. They found part of Bishop's jawbone, with the teeth in it. Dawson's brother gave the team DNA, and it matched. That's how Dawson found her uncle after all these years.
Thousands of service members still missing
There are many families involved in these types of cases, and completing the entire process may take several years, explains Chris McDermott, a historian at the Department of Defense P-O-W/Missing Personnel Office in Crystal City, Va.
"We try to go through archival records about individuals, the records about losses, to try to construct leads and information that might help us locate new clues or new evidence," he says. "We do field investigation based upon the information that we're able to collect, and those sometimes lead to a follow-on excavation by a recovery team."
McDermott says military recovery efforts have vastly improved over the years, thanks to advanced technology. But he says, despite the advances, there are still thousands of service members unaccounted for. At last count, the United States still has 83,577 service members unaccounted for. From the Vietnam War, there's 1,682 service members; from the Cold War, 125; and from World War II, 73,787.
Thankful for closure
Back in Rockford, Ill., even though Dawson lost her beloved Uncle Bobby, she still counts herself lucky for being one of the people who have found a formerly-missing family member who served in World War II.
"Two gentlemen came from the army, and handed me this beautiful blue velvet bag, and in the blue velvet bag was my uncle's one dog tag, bent over and burnt," she says. "And when I held it in my hands, it just sent a chill through me."
Dawson says it's a blessing her uncle was found; Her family can finally put the mystery behind them. She also says she considers him a hero.
"Anybody that gets in the service and doesn't know whether they're gonna be alive the next day or not," she says. "I mean, my husband was in twice, so the first year of our marriage we were separated and it was hard. But he got home finally safely, and I hope all the others can as much as possible."
[Music: "La Dispute" by Yann Tiersen from Le Phare]
Photos: Coming Together To Honor WWII Heroes