Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Mystery of missing WWII pilot may end soon
A widow and a daughter await DNA tests from 1942 crash
By MIKE BARBER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
For more than 60 years, Lt. Kenneth W. Ambrose and his P-38 fighter plane remained lost in Mount Baker's deeply inaccessible, snowbound wilderness.
Now, a year after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the discovery of Ambrose's plane and the saga of the hikers who found it, Ambrose himself may be coming home.
A forensic team sent by the Army's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, known as JPAC, last month recovered human remains at the crash site, the Army confirmed yesterday.
The remains retrieved from the crash site were flown to Hawaii for a repatriation ceremony today with military honors. The lengthy analyses needed to confirm their identity will be performed later, said Maj. Rumi Nielsen-Green, JPAC spokeswoman.
Nielsen-Green said the Army won't say whether the remains are Ambrose's until the entire forensic process is completed. That could take until next spring, she said, depending upon whether a decision is made that there is a need to revisit the crash site.
"We never make identifications until the scenes are closed," she said.
Steve Norris, 58, of West Seattle, an avid hiker who led Army researchers to the scene, said he had agreed to abide by Army policies and would not disclose details.
"I can't comment until we work things through with the Army. Personally, I feel like I've accomplished my goals, like this is finished and has brought closure to everyone," he said. "I'd have to believe the remains were Ambrose."
As the P-I reported last September after three years of working with Norris and others who found the plane, Ambrose was a 24-year-old fighter pilot flying home on furlough to see his wife and newborn daughter when he disappeared Nov. 28, 1942, in a storm near Mount Baker.
As a member of the 54th fighter squadron in Alaska, Ambrose had gained fame during the rugged, bitter Aleutian Islands campaign by recording the first-ever victory by a P-38 fighter over a Japanese warplane.
Ambrose, originally from Lincolnville, Kan., was the only child of sharecroppers and an accomplished trumpet player who knew the "King of Swing" big band leader Count Basie. He had intended to stop at Everett's Paine Field before journeying on to California. There he hoped for a brief reunion with his wife, Marguerite, and to hold for the first time his first child, Dolores Kathleen.
Wartime secrecy prevented much about his disappearance from being reported, however. The P-I could only report a headline "Army plane lost" and a sentence about a search for a P-38 in the Mount Baker area. Storms, however, blocked all search efforts.
Nothing more was ever known or done until September 1997, when two former University of Washington classmates on an arduous cross-country trek, Ben Lynch and Chad Norris, Steve Norris's son, stumbled upon the ghostly debris of an ancient, shattered plane that had slammed into the hillside.
The trio and a few others they entrusted agreed to protect the site's location out of respect for its sanctity as a historic gravesite while attempting to learn more and to quietly interest federal authorities.
The P-I, which tracked and assisted Norris for several years, agreed.
After years of research, which included dealing with obstacles like old records that wrongly described Ambrose's plane as having been scrapped, the Ambrose family's tale of wartime love and loss returned to life last year.
Ambrose's widow, Marguerite, now 85, and daughter Kathleen, now 62, both were discovered to be very much alive and living near each other around the eastern Pennsylvania town of Bluebell.
Marguerite, who had been a Berkeley-educated professional opera singer in San Francisco, went on with her life and remarried. But she never sang again after Ambrose disappeared.
Kathleen Ambrose-Edwards, married and a librarian, said her mother, who now suffers from Parkinson's disease, was emotionally overwhelmed at the discovery. Both women immediately wondered what decisions to make should remains be found.
"Now we have to give a little thought to what we want to do next," Ambrose-Edwards said yesterday after learning of the Army's repatriation ceremony for remains found at the site.
Her father's hometown in Kansas might be his best last resting place, or her mom's in California.
"We talked about what to do a year ago, but at that point they had not even decided to go back to the site ... We thought it was probably unlikely they would find remains," she said.
Ambrose-Edwards realizes it might be a while before the Army sends an official notification team to inform her and her mother that her father's remains have been found.
Full confirmation won't be made until there's an official DNA match. Carrying the female lineage that could contain matching DNA, Ambrose-Edwards hopes she can help identify the man who was coming home that day to hold her.
Ambrose-Edwards said she knew something was up when she recently tried unsuccessfully to glean information from Norris, who promised the Army he would abide by their sensitive disclosure policies.
"Steve told me he could not discuss it, but I could read between the lines from what he couldn't say that either remains or something like dog tags had been found," she said.
In Seattle, word of the latest development in Ambrose's long journey home comes coincidentally as a gathering of his fellow World War II P-38 fighter pilots is slated for this weekend at Seattle's Museum of Flight near Boeing Field.
Nielsen-Green, the Army major, said the remains recovered from Washington state will be among others from elsewhere in the world repatriated today in Hawaii with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute.
Coincidentally, she noted, the repatriation occurs on a day of special significance to JPAC, the one day set aside to honor the 88,000 men and women who never came home from the nation's wars, National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
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