World War II veteran receives recognitionBy DEMETRIUS THOMPSON,
Retired Staff Sgt. Charles “Chuck” Gardner, of Union, was honored by the Friends of Mississippi Veterans on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the Mississippi Veteran’s Memorial Cemetery in Newton. Gardner was honored for his service during World War II, where he served as an aviation mechanic in the Pacific Theater. Gardner was also honored for leading the effort to recover and identify the remains of seven Marines who he served with who died in a plane crash in 1944.
Gardner grew up in southern Neshoba County, one of five children. His older brother, Leon, was stationed at Pearl Harbor and survived the December 1941 attack by the Japanese army. Charles followed him into the military less than a year later, enlisting into the Marines in September 1942.
Gardner reported to boot camp in San Diego and excelled in rifle marksmanship and almost joined Carlson’s Raiders, a highly decorated U.S. Marine special operations unit during the war.
Gardner then reported to aviation mechanic school in Norman, Okla., and was assigned to the VMB-423 “Seahorse Marines” at Cherry Point, N.C. He and his crew of B-25 Mitchell Bomber aircraft personnel were deployed to New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) a string of islands that were then a French and British colony near Australia.
At the age of 96, Gardner can still remember vividly the night one of the bombers disappeared.
“We were there for about two months to do some extra training for the navigators,” Gardner said. “On the night of April 22, 1944, we had nine planes scheduled for a navigation trip.”
Well, it was a little before dark when the pilots came in and they took off in the rain. They were only supposed to be gone for two or two and a half hours.”
Gardner said later that evening, all the bombers started to return except one. The crews waited into the night until 2 a.m. knowing that the missing plane wouldn’t have enough fuel to fly for that long. The next morning the squadron began a two-week search that would come up empty.
Letters were sent to the families of the seven crew members saying the plane was lost to sea with no hopes of recovery.
After the Allied troops won the war against Japan in 1945, Gardner returned home and married his wife, Mildred, who he had only met briefly while they were both attending East Central Junior College (now ECCC) before he enlisted. He later opened Gardner’s Electric Shop on Bank Street in downtown Union and ran it for 40 years.
However, Gardner never gave up on finding his missing comrades who were lost in the Pacific.
“In 2004, we were at our reunion up in Indiana and we found out that they had located this plane, 60 years later,” he said.
The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a joint task force within the U.S. Department of Defense whose mission it was to account for Americans from past wars and conflicts, had located the downed plane but did not recover the remains because there was no DNA from the crew’s family members to help identify them.
JPAC also did not have the contact information to locate family members of each of the seven crew members, so Gardner and his daughter, Nancy, began doing research online. All they had to go on was the crew members’ hometowns and where and when they enlisted.
“She got on the computer and got me several phone numbers, and I got on the phone,” Gardner said. “We worked for two years before we found the first one. We were almost about to give up.”
The first relative was a niece of one of the two pilots who lived in California.
“We called, and the niece answered the telephone and I told her who I was and what I was doing. And I told her that we had found where they plane crashed that her uncle was on,” Gardner said. “And when I told her she just started crying and couldn’t talk.”
The niece said her mother, the pilot’s sister, had died without ever knowing what happened to her brother’s plane more than six decades before.
Charles and Nancy told the niece how to submit her DNA so it could be matched with the remains. Miraculously, they found family members of two of the other crew members in the next two days. Charles and Nancy’s research eventually led to identifying five of the seven crew members.
In 2014, the crew members, pilot Laverne Lallathin, co-pilot Dwight Ekstam, navigator-bombardier Walter Vincent Jr., maintenance/radioman James Sisney, gunners Wayne Erickson and John Yeager and radioman John Donovan, were laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Charles and Mildred recently celebrated their 72th anniversary and still live at their home located on land where he grew up east of Union. Of all his life’s accomplishments, Gardner said his contribution to the U.S. winning the war in the Pacific was the crown jewel.
“The highlight of my life was serving in the Marine Corps those four years,” he said. “I was glad to serve my country there.”