Family completes mission to bring WWII Marine home
BY TIM STANLEY World Staff Writer
Sunday, May 06, 2012
11/08/12 at 12:13 PM
Jutting upward out of the thick jungle brush, the gigantic propeller was the first thing that Craig Anderson and his companions saw.
"The shivers just went all down my spine. I thought, 'We're here,'" Anderson said of the memorable moment, when he finally laid eyes on uncle Walter "Dub" Vincent's long-lost B-25.
The propeller's blades, rusting away on the remote South Pacific island where the plane had crashed, had not spun in years - but Anderson's spirits suddenly soared.
The end of his family's mission - to bring the late Vincent, a Marine second lieutenant who disappeared along with his plane and crewmates during World War II, home to Tulsa - was at last in sight.
Vincent, 21, whose remains were recovered after the family expedition, was declared missing after his B-25 bomber went down on April 22, 1944. Later, Vincent, who was the plane's navigator-bombardier, and six crew members were declared dead.
On Saturday, Vincent's relatives, including Anderson and others who made an expedition to the crash site in 2007, gathered at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa for a graveside service, officially bringing the long family saga to an emotional close.
A military flyover was conducted prior to the graveside service, with the four planes in a missing man formation. About 30 family members and a few family friends, the majority of whom had never met Vincent, attended the private service.
Anderson's daughter and Vincent's great-niece, Brooke Desrochers, a lieutenant and naval flight officer, said she didn't learn about her great-uncle until joining the military.
"When I joined the Navy, the first thing they gave me was his Purple Heart," Desrochers said.
That's when she began hearing stories of her Uncle Dub.
An unfolding story
Wondering for years what had happened to Vincent, his family wouldn't learn much more until 2005. Anderson, an accountant who lives in Dallas with his wife, Kim, Vincent's niece, had begun assembling a packet on him for an upcoming family reunion in Tulsa.
The son of Walter Vincent Sr., a salesman for Phillips Oil, and Lena Vincent, Walter Burt "Dub" Vincent Jr. was born in Bartlesville and moved to Tulsa at age 9. He attended and played basketball for Rogers High School. Later, with the start of the war, he joined the Marines.
Beyond that, for the Andersons, "the only Uncle Dub we ever knew" consisted of a few family mementos in an old box: photos, a wartime letter, a bomber school graduation certificate and a Purple Heart medal.
Of the story behind them all, there just wasn't much to tell.
During the war, Vincent's Marine Bomber Squadron 423, known as the Seahorse Marines, was based in a remote island archipelago now called Vanuatu.
Not long after his arrival, Vincent's plane, PBJ-35087, crashed at sea, or so everyone believed. Though no wreckage was found, he and the crew eventually were declared dead.
"The family did not pursue the details. And over the years, it wasn't talked about much," Craig Anderson said, adding that the memories, such as the day military officials brought news of the crash to the family's Tulsa home, were just too painful.
Preparing for the reunion, Anderson decided to see if anymore information was available, however.
It was through that inquiry, and contacts made through a Seahorse Marines website, he was able to piece together a fuller picture of the flight's fate - and it would change everything for the family.
The crash, Anderson learned, had occurred in bad weather during a night training run out of the Seahorse base in Luganville. And Vincent was not the crew's regular bombardier; he had volunteered to fill in for an ill crewman.
But the most important new detail was this: The plane had not, in fact, crashed at sea, but on a mountain - on Espiritu Santo, the same Vanuatu island where the squadron was based.
From there, with the help of military officials and author Dan Bookout - who documented numerous Vanuatu crash sites for his book "The Search for the Lost Black Sheep" - Anderson was able to pinpoint the site.
Suddenly, Anderson, who after hearing about Vincent for years had been drawn into his story, found himself with a decision to make.
"I remember thinking to myself early on that if we ever find this site, I'd have to go," he said. "Well, here we were. And so I said 'Heck, we've just got to.'"
In 2007, Anderson, his wife, and their daughter and son-in-law traveled together with Bookout to Espiritu Santo.
Agreeing with the military not to remove anything - the goal was simply to show that the site was accessible - they hiked with native guides through miles of dense, mountainous jungle.
It was tough-going over three days, but then they saw it: that rusty propeller. With it lay the rest of the wreckage, buried under the vines and thickets.
"I thought it was a complete long shot," Desrochers said of the logistical challenges and rough terrain.
But she was amazed when they did find the wreckage.
"There was a great sense of celebration," she said. "We toasted to Dub up there."
Military recovery specialists would ultimately make three excavation missions to the site, recovering and identifying portions of the remains of all seven crew members.
They included, in addition to Vincent: Laverne Lallathin of Raymond, Wash., Dwight Ekstam of Port Byron, Ill., John Donovan of Plymouth, Mich., Wayne Erickson of Minneapolis, John Yeager of New Kensington, Pa., and James Sisney of Redwood, Calif.
All the other crewmen's families have been briefed about the recovery results, except for two, who are scheduled to be briefed this week, officials said.
Part of Vincent's remains were buried in Tulsa. The rest of his recovered remains, along with those of the other crewmen, will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery later this year in a common casket - a practice typical for such cases.
Miles Morgan, editor of the Seahorse Marine newsletter and whose late father, Seahorse pilot Dick Morgan, was a former University of Tulsa football player, said: "This is a huge, huge deal for Dub and these men to be brought home and buried on American soil. It's a miracle story for all this to come together after 68 years. What Craig and his family have done is phenomenal."
Remembering the man
Even though so much time has passed, it still means closure for the family that is left, Desrochers said.
"It's emotional," she said. "Not even knowing him, it takes you by surprise. It definitely has an impact on you."
Morgan of Asheville, N.C., said at last count there were about 50 former Seahorse Marines left.
Vincent's closest surviving relative is a sister-in-law, Georgia Kendall of Dallas, who was married to his late brother, Ernie Vincent, a longtime Tulsa dentist. The brothers also had two sisters, Lea Lamb and Jean Washburn, both deceased.
Kendall said she met Dub once, in Oklahoma City, where he was enlisting in the Marines.
"He was a taller, bigger version of his older brother, my husband Ernie," she recalled.
Barbee Brown was a classmate of Vincent's at Rogers and one of the few people who still remember him who attended the service.
"I knew he was tall and handsome," Brown said. "He was nice and a little on the quiet side. He was a nice young man. You know how he got the name Dub? His name was Walter Vincent Jr. They called him W, then they shortened it to Dub."
Kendall said her only wish at this point is that "Dub's family was here to witness this homecoming. How wonderful it would have been for them to know."
Vincent's remains were interred Saturday in a plot his parents bought for him near other family members.
"They bought it back in the 1940s, and it's been there waiting all this time," Anderson said. "I think they truly believed that someday Dub would be found and brought home."
Remembering the fallen Marines
Members of the Seahorse Marines bomber squadron who died in a B-25 crash on April 22, 1944:
- Walter "Dub" Vincent, Tulsa
- Laverne Lallathin of Raymond, Wash.
- Dwight Ekstam of Port Byron, Ill.
- John Donovan of Plymouth, Mich.
- Wayne Erickson of Minneapolis
- John Yeager of New Kensington, Pa.
- James Sisney of Redwood, Calif.
World Staff Writer Sara Plummer contributed to this story
Original Print Headline: Finding Dub
Tim Stanley 918-581-8385
U.S. Marine 2nd Lt. Walter "Dub" Vincent of Tulsa was declared missing during World War II when his B-25 crashed. Courtesy and Tulsa World file photos; JAMES ROYAL / Tulsa World photo illustration
Marines escort the casket of Walter "Dub" Vincent to his burial site at Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa on Saturday. His remains were recently recovered from a crash site in the South Pacific. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World
DAVID HOUSH / Tulsa World
DAVID HOUSH / Tulsa World
Craig Anderson (center, gray T-shirt) and other family members of the late Marine 2nd Lt. Walter "Dub" Vincent of Tulsa pose with the group that accompanied them in 2007 to Vincent's World War II crash site on Vanuatu. Courtesy