It has been 77 years since Howard Gotts was with his family on the earth of his hometown, but his homecoming was one of both sorrow and pride. 

You see, Sgt. Howard Gotts gave his life as a 23-year-old radio operator when he was killed in action in August 1943 aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber that crashed on a bombing mission over the oil fields of Romania in World War II. And on Labor Day, his family, their friends and neighbors, an Honor Guard, numerous veterans, Patriot Guards, and others gathered at the family plot in Sand Hill Cemetery to welcome him home at last. 

The story that began with Howard’s service in WW II began to draw to a close in 2014 when his great-niece, Joyce Richardson and her sister, Evelyn Hundley, were contacted by the Department of Defense to provide DNA samples to add to a database dedicated to trying to identify the remains of those unknown soldiers lost in action. Following the mitochondrial DNA inherited along the female lines of heredity is the most accurate match, but Joyce really didn’t expect a result. 

According to the Dept. of Defense, on Aug. 1, 1943, the B-24D aircraft on which Gotts served, crashed during Operation Tidal Wave, the largest bombing mission, against the oil fields and refineries at Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, Romania. The Romanian government announced they had recovered and buried 216 Americans killed in the bombing raid, but could only identify 27 of the men at the time of the recovery. The remaining casualties were said to have been buried as Unknowns in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania. After the war, American Graves Registration Command teams disinterred all of the American deceased in Bolovan Cemetery and transferred them to the American Military Cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz, Belgium. Two of Gotts’ crewmates were identified, but five other crew members, including Gotts, could not be identified, and his name was not found on any prisoner of war list. His remains were declared non-recoverable.

Howard’s sister Ina, Joyce’s grandmother, never let his memory be forgotten. In fact, Joyce’s brother, Howard Clark of Lyons, is named for their great-uncle. Ina would recall her beloved brother almost daily, often brought to tears for the family’s loss. Sadly, Ina passed away in March of 2017 at age 100, just before the family had word that his remains might have been recovered, says Joyce. In June of this year, the family learned that the formerly unknown soldier in that Belgian cemetery identified only as grave X-5059, was confirmed by DNA analysis to be their honored uncle, the lost soldier who would soon be returning to his native soil.

Howard’s family has remained one who values military service. His casket arrived late last Friday at Rochester Airport, escorted by Major Brian Kent, great-grandson of Harold, Howard’s older brother. Howard’s great-great-nephew, who is in current service in the U.S. Army in Rhode Island, spoke at the burial with full military honors with justifiable pride. Speaking of Howard as one of “The Greatest Generation,” Kent said, “He not only volunteered to fight for his country, but went above and beyond to volunteer for the Air Corps and eventually lose his life participating in an all-volunteer mission aimed at destroying vital oil resources controlled by German military forces in Romania.

“Howard loved his family and wrote them often. While his real family remained in New York, he had another family, that of his unit; his fellow crew members of the B-24 known as Wing Dinger. An aircrew is like a family because one decision doesn’t affect the individual, it affects everyone.”

Jim Roome was a Gotts family historian and after retiring from Eastman Kodak Co., delved into finding out what happened to his cousin, Howard. Nearly 50 years after Gotts’ death, Roome found a remaining survivor of the crash. Michael Cicon, of Pennsylvania, who had been in the rear of the plane when it was hit by enemy fire, was able to jump out as did one other crew member. 

A log book at the 44th Bomb Group Museum in Shipdham Air Base, England, recounts what happened to Wing Dinger, the bright orange B-24 piloted by Lt. George W. Winger. Winger and his men had completed 27 missions and were legally “retired,” but chose to go on one more mission as it was important to the war effort:

“As this formation was on their bomb run, Winger’s ship was knocked aside by an explosion, and crossed directly below Lt. Hunn’s ship. On the other side of the target, Winger was still in the air but it now was an orange color. Its Tokyo fuel tanks were aflame in the bomb bay and the pilots evidently knew that the end was near.” Lt. Hunn said, “Winger climbed steeply to about 500 feet. It must have taken him and his co-pilot Lt. Barnett, enormous effort to get her high enough for people to bail out. Two men did jump out of the waist ports, and their parachutes opened as the ship crashed and exploded.”

A 17-year-old gunner, Bernard G. Traudt landed unhurt, concealed his chute, and crawled under some bushes and went to sleep after no sleep the night before. Later he stated: “The other waist gunner, Michael Cicon, and I bailed out at approximately 500 feet, due to the fact that the plane was on fire and the bail out alarm rang. The plane hit the ground before we did, and we did not see anyone else get out.” 

Roome wrote, “It was later reported that the air bombing campaign to subdue Germany cost the United States in excess of $40 billion and the lives of more than 29,000 young airmen.” After his report was published in 2006, he wrote, “This report exemplified what war really is, Howard never had the chance to get married, have children or enjoy the fruits of a long life. And he is only one of millions that have been killed in America’s wars, from the Revolution to today’s Iraq war”

That sadness joined with honor was heard in Joyce’s words of remembrance of her uncle Howard and her grandmother Ina, the last of Howard’s siblings. They were reunited two years ago in heaven, and today they are reunited here in the grave.”

Includes reporting by Julie Sherwood