SALT LAKE CITY -- Salt Lake City International Airport welcomed a pilot home from war 69 years after he went missing.
In March of 1944, Second Lt. Vernal Bird was flying his 8th mission as pilot of an A20 G Havoc Night Bomber when his plane disappeared. The Army Air Corps called off search efforts in the dangerous terrain, so Bird's remains were not found until 2001, when a New Guinea native found the wrecked plane.
Even then, the wreckage could not be identified. The local found a human fibula as well, but the identity of Bird was not confirmed until his niece, Lorna Bird Snyder, sent a DNA sample to the Army. The sample came from Snyder's mother, Bird's sister.
On Wednesday afternoon, more than 100 members of Bird's extended family gathered at the airport to welcome a casket with Bird's remains.
The airport police escorted the Delta Airlines Boeing 737 and the airport fire department formed a water cannon salute with two engines shooting water in an arch over the arriving airliner.
In the crowd of family members were several nieces and nephews who had childhood memories of their Uncle, the bomber pilot.
"We were sitting at the table having lunch when the phone rang and my sister answered the phone,” said Betty Manley, who is Bird's niece. “She came back and had tears in her eyes, and she said, ‘Uncle Vernal's missing. He was last seen over shark infested water off the shores of New Guinea.’"
Manley was 15 years old when Bird went missing.
"He was handsome,” she said. “He was very intelligent. He was student body president when he was in high school.”
The Utah County Sheriff's Office and Utah Highway Patrol escorted the hearse to a cemetery in Spanish Fork, Bird's final resting place.
"There's lots of people who never forgot him," Manley said.