In Memoriam: My WW II Soldiers – Part 4

Most of my mother’s ancestors headed “west” from Virginia — but not too far west.  One large branch of my tree, however, were Mormon Pioneers, going all the way to Utah with Brigham Young in 1847. The soldier I will tell you about today was a descendant of Fielding Garr, who had quite a story of his own  . . . one for another day.

Mac S. Groesbeck was my 7th cousin, born June 19, 1916, in Holden, Utah. The family left Holden to live in Roosevent and then Highland, where his father, Hyrum, was a chicken rancher. Hyrum died of kidney disease in 1931, leaving Mac (age 14) and his five siblings to be raised by their mother. Mac graduated from high school there and then attended Utah State Agriculture College for one year, studying diesel mechanics. Mac served in the military during WW II — in fact, at one point his mother had four sons serving at the same time. Mac enlisted in the armed services on April 25, 1941, and became  a gunner on B-17E #41-2635, assigned to the 5th Air Force, 19th Bombardment Group, 30th Bombardment Squadron.

dnews sgt. Mac Groesbeck

Sgt. Groesbeck volunteered for a mission from Papua New Guinea, to bomb Japanese shipping in Tonolei Harbor in the Solomon Islands. He was in one of six B-17s that took off in the early morning hours of November 1, 1942. Mac’s plane failed to return from the night mission, and the official report said it was “last seen in the vicinity of Tonolei Harbor, Solomon Islands, held by enemy searchlights and receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire. The aircraft is believed to have been shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire over Tonolei Harbor, Bougainville, Solomon Islands.”  Later it was found that Groesbeck’s B-17 had impacted the northern side of a ridge line in the vicinity of Milne Bay in southeastern Papua New Guinea and was most likely attempting to descend below bad weather. Fire from the fuel tanks after impact destroyed most of the fuselage. Two 1,000-pound bombs failed to explode.

groesbeck crash

Groesbeck’s crash site in Papua New Guinea

Sgt. Groesbeck was one of eight declared Missing in Action in that crash. Here is the rest of his story, as told in The Salt Lake Tribune, March 17, 2005:

The telegram came in December 1942, one of more than 75,000 sent to the families of U.S. servicemen who went missing during World War II.

It was, Mac Groesbeck’s family feared, the last they would know of the 26-year-old Army Air Force sergeant, who was lost alongside seven others during a Nov. 1 bombing mission near the Solomon Islands.

Yet, this weekend — more than 62 years since Groesbeck’s disappearance — his remains will be interred in a Richfield cemetery.

Never the same: It was Groesbeck’s youngest brother, Leslie, who plucked the envelope from the mailbox of his family’s Highland home and delivered it to his mother.

“I was 14 years old at that time, just a snot-nosed kid, you know,” Paul Groesbeck recalled Wednesday. “I didn’t know until we opened it —  it said he was missing in action.”

Paul Groesbeck said his family was never the same.

Byron Groesbeck, who also served on Air Force bombers in the Pacific theater during World War II, returned to Utah without his younger brother. In 1959, he moved to Fremont, Calif. — but he never stopped talking about his fast-driving, chance-taking, happy-go-lucky sibling.

“Even today, he is still always talking about Mac,” says Byron’s wife, Myrtle. “He missed him so.”

Then, in 1984, another letter arrived. A man in Nevada, a relative of a soldier who served with Groesbeck, had discovered the lost sergeant’s diary. The tattered leather journal arrived at Byron Groesbeck’s Fremont home a few weeks later.

Its final entry, dated two days before the crash, was brief: “I spent all morning in my tent. Bob got back from Cloncurry and seems to have had a good time. I guess I missed out on a good time myself.”

So that, Byron Groesbeck figured, was the last he would know of his younger brother, who was just one week from coming home when he volunteered to be the tailgunner on the ill-fated mission.

Found:  High in the tree-lined mountains near the town of Alotau, near Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea in 1998, a native hunter — searching for betel nuts — came upon the wreckage of an American airplane. He returned with several others to find a watch, a comb, what appeared to be human bones — and a dog tag.

The metal tag’s top line read: JAMES W. CARVER.

Carver was the co-pilot on the unnamed B-17. Like Mac Groesbeck, the first lieutenant affectionately known as “Scootie” had volunteered to ride in the shorthanded Flying Fortress during a mission to bomb Japanese installations near Faisi Island.

Like Groesbeck — and 1st Lt. John Hancock, Sgt. Robert Burns, Sgt. Edward Cipriani, Sgt. Raymond Maxwell, Cpl. Curtis Longenberger and Cpl. Hiram Wilkinson — Carver’s remains would stay hidden under a thick tree canopy for six decades.

By 2001, a team from the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory had taken custody of the artifacts and remains.

The archaeological investigators quickly surmised what happened: The aircraft, flying in the darkness of night and in bad weather, hit the northern side of a ridge line on approach to its target. A fire appears to have destroyed most of the fuselage.

Among the wreckage, the Army team would locate another set of dog tags, belonging to Groesbeck, along with a watch bearing his initials.

An entry in Groesbeck’s journal detailed the day he had the timepiece engraved.

“Mike Zundel, Ross Lewis and myself went downtown,” the Dec. 31, 1941, entry reads. “I had my initials engraved on my watch and then went and bought me a Kodak.”

Identification: It would be several years after the discovery before the hard-to-reach site would be completely excavated and the process of identification was complete.

Groesbeck’s siblings learned in the summer of 2001 of the discovery of their long-lost brother’s watch and dog tags. Paul Groesbeck quickly volunteered to provide a DNA sample so that his brother’s remains could be sorted from those of the other airmen who perished alongside him.

Using mitochondrial DNA — which is preserved well in bones — Army technicians compared Paul Groesbeck’s sample with samples taken at the crash site. But before the process could be completed, the team of forensic scientists working at Hawaii’s Hickam Air Force Base were given a new assignment: helping identify the remains of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Though they were eager to lay their brother to rest, the Groesbeck family understood the delay and remained grateful.

“For me, it’s just amazing that the government does this,” said Mac Groesbeck’s younger brother, Leslie. “It’s really important.”

In January of this year, Army officials from Washington, D.C., visited Paul Groesbeck at his Utah home, carrying the watch and dog tags and news of the positive identification.

Ultimately, the lab was able to match Paul Groesbeck’s DNA with just a few of the bones found at the crash site.

“It was good and bad, as I’m sure anyone can understand,” Paul Groesbeck said.

Laid to rest: In all, the remains of six of the eight servicemen lost in the crash were positively identified by the Army technicians and have been returned to their families for burial.

A memorial service will be held honoring Mac Groesbeck at noon Saturday in the Neal S. Magelby and Sons Mortuary Chapel in Richfield. A graveside service, with military honors, will follow at 1 p.m. in the Richfield City Cemetery.

The remaining unidentified remains are scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on April 28.

groesbeck grave

Arlington National Cemetery

Sgt. Groesbeck received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

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