Remembered, Not Forgotten on National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2020

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Public Affairs

National POW/MIA Recognition Day was established in 1979 and is commemorated on the third Friday in September.  The purpose of this day is to honor those members of the military who were held captive as prisoners of war (POW) and returned, as well as those who remain missing in action (MIA).

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), in addition to a national-level ceremony, traditionally held at the Pentagon, “…observances of National POW/MIA Recognition Day are held across the country on military installations, ships at sea, state capitols, schools and veterans' facilities.”

DPAA’s latest data (11 September 2020) indicates there are still 81,900 American servicemembers missing in action from World War II and conflicts since then.  The data shows that 75% of the losses are located in the Indo-Pacific region, with more than 41,000 of the missing lost at sea (i.e. sunken ships, known aircraft water losses overwater, etc.).

For the 142nd Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, on this day we remember  11 men carried on the unit’s MIA roster who remain missing from World War II.  See the wing’s current POW/MIA roster here.

These 11 men belong to two different organizations in the wing.  One is the 123rd Fighter Squadron, designated as the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron (35th PRS) from 1943 to 1946, which has six men still missing, three in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea (original squadron charter members of 1941) and three in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations where the squadron was deployed to fly F-5E Photo Lightning aircraft in aerial reconnaissance.

The other organization is the 142nd Wing itself, which was designated in World War II as the 371st Fighter Group, a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber unit that flew combat in Northwest Europe.  The wing has five men still missing in the European Theater of Operations.

Of these 11 missing, three went MIA in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of North Africa when the troop transport they were aboard, the SS Paul Hamilton, was sunk in a German air attack on 20 April 1944.  The ship catastrophically exploded and killed all 580 aboard – only one body was recovered.  These three charter members of the squadron had been reassigned to the 32nd Photo Recon Squadron and were enroute to Italy at the time.

Of the three men lost in the CBI, all were F-5E pilots.  Two were lost on operational photo recon missions and one on an administrative flight between two of the squadron’s bases in China.  There is actually some movement on finding one of them, 1st Lt. Franklin H. McKinney, a Lockheed F-5E Photo Lightning pilot who went MIA during a photo recon mission on 5 November 1944. 

Major General Arthur C. Clark, USAF (Retired) was a 35th PRS intelligence officer during the war and assigned to the squadron’s “G” Flight to which McKinney belonged.  He vividly remembers the day Franklin McKinney went missing and hopes for him to be accounted for.  “You could tell right away that he (McKinney) was a well-trained pilot. Although I didn’t know him all that well personally, I could figure out he was smart.”  

The day Lt. McKinney went missing, then-Lt. Clark recalls the weather that day wasn’t really suitable for the mission- still the monsoon season in Southeast Asia.  But the press of the war effort made every bit of information from aerial photo reconnaissance essential.  The Allies were close to connecting the Ledo Road across northern Burma to southwestern China as well as pushing Imperial Japanese forces back in Burma at various points in order to reopen ground-based supply lines to China.  

So, McKinney took off on what was planned as a seven-hour photo recon mission of over 1,100 miles over northeastern Burma and northern Thailand.  Lt. Clark and pilot 1st Lt. Sterling Barrow kept watch at the airfield awaiting McKinney’s return until past the time his fuel would have lasted.  “I didn’t think he was shot down. The weather got him,” General Clark remembers. 

Indeed, reports from Thailand during the war indicate his aircraft came down in a storm in northern Thailand, perhaps struck by lightning.  Based on the wartime report, discovered a few years ago, the research work of ex-patriots like Steve Darke and Hak Hakanson, historian Daniel Jackson and information from Thai citizens, DPAA sent an investigation team into northern Thailand in late 2019.  Additional information was gained, hopefully enough to send another team in 2021 to find and account for Franklin H. McKinney.  

We also remember the five men still missing in Europe, four P-47 Thunderbolt pilots and one Enlisted Man.  At this time there are no leads on the possible locations of these missing personnel.

As for unit members who were POW’s, the 142nd Wing’s POW roster includes a total of 22 men taken prisoner in World War II (21 in Europe and one in the Pacific) and one more in the Korean War.  All but one were fighter pilots.

General Clark also remembers one of the POW’s, the only one who wasn’t a fighter pilot, 1st Lt. Merlin R. Allen.  “Merlin was a real nice guy, went to the Air Intelligence School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and was trained as a photo interpreter.”  He was then assigned to the 35th PRS and shipped overseas with the squadron to China in 1944.  “At some point he was transferred to the 16th Combat Camera Unit, a fine young officer put into a very interesting job.” 

On 25 June 1945 Lt. Allen flew an aerial mission as a photographer and General Clark recalls:  “They were on a C-47 on a leaflet drop mission at Changsha.  The story we had was that one of the men aboard, the guy next to him, was shooting a tommy gun from the cargo door and slipped and fell out of the airplane.  Allen grabbed him but got pulled out of the airplane.”  Lt. Allen safely parachuted but was captured.  He was to be transported to a Japanese headquarters in Hengyang and was put aboard an ammunition train, a violation of the Geneva Convention.  Unfortunately, on the way the train was bombed on 2 July, Allen was badly wounded and subsequently died on 16 July in Changsha, a month before the war ended.

On this POW/MIA Recognition Day 2020, the men and women of the 142nd Wing remember Franklin H. McKinney, Merlin R. Allen and the others on the unit’s POW/MIA roster.  We salute our predecessors who served and sacrificed for the nation in time of war and ensure that they are remembered, not forgotten.