Your Military

How a businessman’s search for remains uncovered a WWII aviator who crashed in the mountains of Papua New Guinea

A WWII Army Air Corps aviator will be buried at Arlington this week with full military honors — thanks to the dogged efforts of a Philadelphia businessman who made multiple treks to the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

The remains of Maj. Donn Young were originally found more than 20 years ago by Fred Hagen, a Philadelphia construction company owner who originally went looking for the remains and aircraft of his great-uncle, Maj. Bill Benn in 1995.

Now, nearly eight decades after his plane went down in Papua New Guinea, Young will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday.

It was Jan. 18, 1943 when Young and went missing in action flying a B-25 Mitchell bomber named the “Algernon IV.” That day, Young was Benn’s co-pilot as part of a mission to discover clearings in the jungle that Allied forces could use for emergency landing zones for aircraft harmed in enemy action, Hagen told the Military Times.

It’s unclear exactly what led up to the B-25’s crash into the mountains in the Owen Stanley Range in Papua New Guinea, however Hagen said the aircraft lost its left engine. It remains unknown whether the loss was from combat damage or from a mechanical error, but Hagen noted that reports indicate there were severe thunderstorms the day the crash.

Hagen initially embarked on a crusade in 1995 and devoted years to trying to recover the B-25 his uncle flew.

“I received a quick education in the magnitude of the challenge confronting me,” Hagen said in an email to the Military Times as he described the start of the project. “I realized that this would not be easy and it would require a significant investment of time and resources.”

After multiple excursions, Hagen found a total of eight U.S. military aircraft that were listed as missing in action. Among them was his great-uncle’s B-25.

“I made a series of expeditions usually 4 to 5 weeks in duration that resulted in the discovery of Bill’s plan in 1998,” Hagen said. “Along the way, I discovered several other MIA war planes and helped return the remains of 18 airmen for burial with full military honors.”

Despite Hagen’s efforts, he never found dog tags to identify Benn. However, he did find dog tags and articles of clothing belonging to Young and delivered Young’s mortal remains to the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea in June 1998.

DNA testing confirmed that the remains belonged to Young in 2018, paving the way for Young to be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Young’s burial is slated to include a brief shutdown of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport for an Air Force flyover.

In accordance with military protocol, Hagen said he did not contact Young’s family after he delivered Young’s mortal remains to the U.S. Embassy in Port Moresby.

“The military reached out to the Young family,” Hagen said. “The Young family subsequently reached out to me and I have met family members, many of whom will be attending the service...Tuesday at Arlington.”

Hagen said he was initially inspired to launch the excursion to find Benn’s aircraft and remains due to Benn’s role pioneering the “skip bombing” technique that allows the bombs to skip the surface of the water before striking the side of a ship.

“I was motivated to find Bill’s plane and film a documentary about my search and his life because he played a major transformational role in the early air war but he was lost so early that the scale and magnitude of subsequent events cause his service to be forgotten,” Hagen said.

Benn served for a period of time as a personal aide to Gen. George Kenney, the commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area from 1942 to 1945. Hagen said Kenney’s remark in his memoirs that “no one in the Pacific Theater made a greater contribution to victory than Bill Benn” inspired him to track down the missing aircraft.

“That extraordinary compliment from a highly regarded Commander convinced me that I needed to search for Bill’s plane and tell his story in an effort to correct the historic record and give my Great Uncle his due,” Hagen said.

Hagan said he now in the process of writing a book about his “adventures” in military aviation initially inspired by the search for his great uncle, and is also working on a documentary about salvaging the B-17E that is now on display at the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Hawaii.

He also said he is in discussions to search and salvage several other war planes.

Recommended for you
Around The Web