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Ned Wernick helps to bring fallen plane crew home

Ned Wernick has helped to identify and bring home the remains of missing crew members from B-25 planes that crashed in the South Pacific in April 1944. This photo shows a B-25 flying over the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force during the Doolittle Raiders 70th Anniversary Reunion.

Ned Wernick has helped to identify and bring home the remains of missing crew members from B-25 planes that crashed in the South Pacific in April 1944. This photo shows a B-25 flying over the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force during the Doolittle Raiders 70th Anniversary Reunion.

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Statistics from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) show there are 83,432 American service members from the World War II era onward still unaccounted for.

Decades later, the search continues to bring these heroes home.

Ned Wernick, father of Phoebe Putney Health System CEO Joel Wernick, has been involved in such efforts.

The elder Wernick, who served in a B-25 squadron during World War II, helped to unravel the mystery of a B-25 of the same squadron that had crashed into the side of a mountain in the South Pacific on a stormy April 22, 1944, thereby assisting in the effort to bring back the remains of the seven crew members aboard the plane.

It started when he was helping to restore a plane painted with the same serial number as the B-25 that had crashed that day.

"I was working as a volunteer at the National (Naval) Aviation Museum (in Pensacola, Fla.), and they brought in a plane that was the same model I had flown in," Wernick said in an interview with The Albany Herald. "The historian placed the serial number, and I checked the archives and came to find it was one of mine.

"I wondered if the remains (of the seven crew members) had ever been returned. I checked with Headquarters Marine Corps and found out they were still out there."

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was brought in to set the wheels turning. Once JPAC came on board, DNA samples were collected from next of kin. Over the course of three summers, remains were removed from the crash site.

In February, the remains of all the crew started to make their way back to the families. While families have been conducting memorial services of their own, there is a communal burial planned to take place at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in October, Wernick said.

Though he came into the squadron several months after the crash, Wernick said it felt satisfying to help the families out.

"It felt good to have a part in bringing these people back home," he said.

There was one family in particular from whom he was able to sense that the descendants of that crewmember had gotten some closure.

"They were under the impression that the plane had been lost at sea, but they had crashed into a mountain and remains were still out there," Wernick said. "I wanted closure and I wanted the families to have closure.

"I would like to think these people who have had sons missing in action, that the government gets these remains to families. It is a little bit of a load off of peoples' minds."

Of the total 83,432 DPMO has listed as still missing in action as of June 8, 73,681 were from World War II, 7,955 were from the Korean War, 1,664 from Vietnam, 126 were from the Cold War and six are from Iraq and other conflicts.