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Home : News
NEWS | June 7, 2024

Remains of fallen WWII Airman returns home after 80 years

By Timothy Koster

The Connecticut National Guard funeral honors team provided an honorable transfer for the repatriated remains of U.S. Army Air Corps Tech Sgt. Kenneth J. McKeeman, a radio operator who served with the 724th Bombardment Squadron, 451st Bombardment Group, 13th Air Force, in the European Theater during World War II, at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. May 31, 2024.

The team also assisted with the burial of Tech Sgt. McKeeman by providing full military honors as he was laid to rest the Connecticut State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown June 7, 2024.

“[The military] promised to bring them home and not leave them alone, leave them there,” said Mary Bourdon, McKeeman’s niece. “And they did that.”

“It’s a wonderful feeling for the family,” said Kenneth McKeeman, Tech Sgt. McKeeman’s nephew and namesake. “All of us are so thankful for what the military did to find a family member.”

McKeeman, a Fort Jay, New York native, was killed in action on March 11, 1944, when his B-24 Liberator airplane was struck by enemy antiaircraft fire after releasing its payload on German submarine pens and repair sheds near Toulon, France. According to eyewitnesses aboard other allied aircraft, the plane lost control and plummeted more than 3,000 feet before breaking apart and crashing into the sea.

Because German forces occupied southern France at the time of the incident, U.S. forces were unable to immediately recover the bodies of McKeeman and the rest of the plane’s crew. The Germans did, however, report the recovery, death, and burial of McKeeman and his crew at Lagoubran Cemetery in Toulon, to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Switzerland, which subsequently informed the U.S. War Department.

In 1946, after the liberation of France, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) was tasked to begin the process of recovering American Personnel in the European Theater. Although cemetery records indicated the burial spot of McKeeman and his crew, and the exhumed remains were burned and fractured with injuries consistent with casualties of airplane crashes, the AGRC couldn’t find enough evidence to suggest the remains truly belonged to McKeeman.

The investigator assigned to McKeeman’s case believes his aircraft crashed several miles offshore in the Mediterranean Sea and was doubtful his remains would ever be recovered. On April 2, 1951, the AGRC review board recommended McKeeman be declared non-recoverable. In October of that same year, the Memorial Division, Office of the Quartermaster General, approved those findings and McKeeman was officially declared lost and unrecoverable.

“We never imagined that we would ever end up identifying him,” said Caroline LaPorta, McKeeman’s great-niece, in an interview with the New York Post.

The unidentified remains from Lagoubran Cemetery were interred at what is now known as at Rhône American Cemetery in Draguignan, France.

In 2019, the Department of Defense and the American Battle Monuments Commission began investigating unknown remains interred at Rhône. Through their research, it was determined that the burial of the unknown service members at Lagoubran Cemetery occurred months before any ground combat occurred, implying they could only belong to air crews.

Based on additional research and evidence, historians were able to conclude that the unidentified remains must belong to an airman who died between January and April, 1944. Of the six aircraft that were documented as crashing in the region during that time, only McKeeman’s was documented as having unclaimed personnel. So, the remains were exhumed and sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for testing.

Through the test of the remains’ mitochondrial DNA, compared to DNA samples from McKeeman’s maternal bloodline, it was confirmed that the remains belonged to McKeeman on Sept. 18, 2023.

“There’s a profound sense of sadness but it wasn’t like losing a parent or that type of sadness, and in fact, I was born 7 years after he died—but I kind of stepped back and reflected on the sacrifice he made and some 400,000 other individuals killed in that conflict,” said Mike McKeeman, McKeeman’s nephew in an interview with the New York Post. “He died when he was 23 and never had the chance to have kids, grandkids and all stuff like that. He sacrificed for the country. He sacrificed for the country but we’re a big part of that.”

“When I told my mom, she burst into tears,” said LaPorta. “And it touched me because she never really talked about Uncle Ken, she didn’t really remember him. She remembers when he died, when the family was notified … her mom crying and her grandma crying, and the family just being upset. So, when I told her they actually had identified him using her DNA, she just burst into tears.”

After 80 years of being lost in action, Tech Sgt. McKeeman was finally laid to rest back home with his family, fellow veterans, first responders, and supporters, to give one final farewell.

“We must never forget,” said Ron Welch, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs. “We must make every effort we can to recover remains.”

His awards and decorations include: Purple Heart (posthumous), Air Medal, (posthumous), Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, World War II Victory Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, U.S. Army Air Force Enlisted Aircrew Member Wings, and Honorable Service Lapel Button-World War II.