WWII Marine flyer, the son, brother of former Tryon attorneys, finally coming home to Charleston

Published 3:10 pm Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Members of the Pentagons Joint POW/MIA Accounting Commands recovery team flip over the wreckage of Captain Marion R. McCowns figher plane in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea back in May. (Yoon S. Byun, Boston Globe staff)

In January, 1944, Capt. McCown&squo;s squadron was stationed at Vella Lavella on the western edge of the Solomon Islands ‐ the heart of the Pacific theater.

A month after attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had established bases across the Papua New Guinea archipelago as part of their strategy to cut off Australia. For nearly three years, American fighters and bombers took off from aircraft carriers and hastily constructed air bases on nearby islands to pummel the Japanese forces there.

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The 27-year-old Ryan McCown sent letters back home to Charleston, detailing his adventures to his sister Claudia, and thanking the family for an ID bracelet they had sent him. He said it would bring him luck.

He was lucky, and then unlucky.

About the middle of that month, January 1944, he was on a mission when his Corsair developed engine trouble over the ocean, nearly 50 miles from base. He ditched the plane, and was spotted by a PT boat the next day.

He could have had some time off, but instead volunteered for a mission to take place on January 20. The squadron was to escort bombers to Rabaul, the site of a key Japanese air base, nearly 200 miles away in New Guinea.

According to the surviving pilots, somewhere on the path, the Hell&squo;s Angels ran into dozens of enemy fighters. They were outnumbered.

At one point, 1st Lt. Robert See, the squadron&squo;s ace, spotted a Zero ‐ the most common of Japanese fighter planes ‐ on McCown&squo;s tail.

That was the last anyone saw of Marion Ryan McCown for more than six decades.

But folks in Tryon never stopped wondering, trying to find out.

Ryan McCown was Vance&squo;s half brother, a Charleston native born of Marion Ryan McCown Sr.&squo;s first marriage.

After leaving Charleston, McCown Sr. was an attorney in private practice in Tryon. He served for a long time as Tryon&squo;s town attorney, before Vance took over for him in 1961.

McCown Sr. was also the local counsel for Southern Railway. It was McCown Sr. who convinced Southern Railway to allow a cut-through street to be built, now McCown Street, from Pacolet Street at the Depot to Hwy. 176 at Sidestreet Pizza so traffic would not be trapped on Pacolet Street every day waiting on the trains coming through town.

Though he had known him only as a boy, Vance McCown never forgot his half-brother lost thousands of miles away in the South Pacific.

A niece, Blair McKinney, remembers Vance McCown telling stories of his long lost brother.

&dquo;I can share with you my image of Ryan Jr. My uncle, William Vance McCown, Ryan&squo;s half-brother told me that his most searing memory of Ryan Jr. is the day he left. He remembered standing in the driveway as a 9- or 10-year-old little boy, watching his much older brother drive off on his very loud motorcycle in his cool, leather flight jacket after saying goodbye to the family and heading off to the war. That &39;Marlon Brando-esque&39; image is what has stayed with us all these years. Ryan was evidently a very cool guy.&dquo;

That was a hard image to forget, and the mystery surrounding his brother&squo;s disappearance troubled Vance McCown.

&dquo;Over the years, he tried to find out about him,&dquo; Ann McCown said. &dquo;He called the POW/MIA office and went to the office in Washington, D.C. and to the Naval Yard.&dquo;

Though it had lost track of all his surviving family, the Pentagon also remembered McCown.

In fact, the military has been keeping track of soldiers missing in action since the Mexican War. The military established a Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu in 1976 and a special task force to recover remains in 1992.

That task force identified 889 of the estimated 1,800 service members missing from the Vietnam War.

But the vast majority of soldiers still listed as Missing In Action (MIA) ‐ 78,000 of the estimated 88,000 ‐ were lost on the battlefields of WWII.

In 2003, the Pentagon expanded the number of personnel dedicated to the recovery effort to 400 and combined the laboratory and recovery operations into a single command, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is now run by an admiral and has a budget of $54 million.

About half of all WWII MIAs are estimated to be recoverable.

In recent years, armed with new DNA technologies, 437 WWII veterans remains have been identified.

The search has expanded to northern India, where an estimated 1,365 American fliers were lost traversing the Himalayas.

In the South Pacific, the Pentagon currently tracks 20,782 missing service members, according to records checked by the Boston Globe.

Between 1942 and 1945, at least 2,228 American pilots and crew members were lost over Papua New Guinea. Capt. McCown was one of them.

The largest group of islands in the vast archipelago stretching from Southeast Asia to Australia, Papua New Guinea has some of the thickest rainforests on the planet. However, in the 1990s an exploration boom to mine gold and other minerals opened access to areas largely unknown to the outside world.

McCown&squo;s plane, it turns out, had been spotted by islanders in the years immediately after the war. Army researchers visited the site in 1991, but didn&squo;t find sufficient remains to identify with DNA. But with new DNA technologies, the site was targeted for further investigation.

Last May, a team led by George Eyster, a 32-year-old veteran of the Iraq War, began excavations at the site where the remnants of McCown&squo;s plane rests, on a steep slope near the village of Vunaukaur, a collection of thatch-roofed bamboo dwellings that house six families.

On May 14, the suspected remains of Capt. Marion R. McCown, United States Marine Corps Reserve, were placed in a specially designed transfer case and carried into a small chapel at the headquarters of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, in the island nation&squo;s capital city of Port Moresby.

A U.S. military honor guard ‐ recovery team members in their full dress uniforms ‐ draped the cases with American flags, stood at attention and saluted their fallen comrades. The solemn repatriation ceremony marked the beginning of the pilot&squo;s journey home to the United States.

The Marine Corps POW/MIA office outside Washington got the news that McCown&squo;s remains had been positively identified last summer. Before the office could begin its search for surviving relatives, McCown&squo;s nephew, John Almeida a pathologist in Jacksonville, N.C., contacted them. It turns out another cousin had seen a Boston Globe article last May about the recovery team&squo;s discovery of McCown&squo;s plane.

A few days later, a military courier showed up and handed Almeida his uncle&squo;s dog tags.

A funeral for Capt. Marion Ryan McCown will be held Jan. 18, 2009 at 3 p.m. at the Unitarian Church, 4 Archdale St., in Charleston. McCown will be buried beside his mother, Grace Aimar McCown, a week after what would have been his 92nd birthday. He had no wife, no children.

His nephew, Almeida, wondered if anyone at the funeral would remember Ryan McCown after 65 years. But Mike McDaniel, funeral director at Stuhr&squo;s West Ashley, said the family might be surprised at the large turnout.

&dquo;This is a hero coming home,&dquo; he said.

This story is compiled from accounts in the Boston Globe, the Charleston Post and Courier, and from interviews with Ann McCown of Tryon and Ellen McCown Schwab of Hendersonville.