WWII Airmen Lost in “Black Sunday” Raid Identified and Returned to U.S. for Burial

 
 
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The long wait endured by the Harth family will soon be over.  It has taken over 70 years for the remains of their family member, Second Lt. William H. Harth Jr. to be returned to the United States for burial.

Harth was born on the 27th of February, 1921 in Columbia to William Henry Harth Snr. and Velda Baxter Harth.  William Harth Jr. was educated and graduated from Columbia High School.

He then studied at the University of Southern Carolina before deciding to enlist in the Army Air Corps.  He attended officer training school and was commissioned as a bombardier and an officer on the 10th of October, 1942.

He was assigned to ‘The Travelling Circus,’ officially known as the 329th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), which was part of the 93rd Bombardment Group.

This Group formed at Moody Air Force Base which was situated near Valdosta, Georgia, before being sent overseas to North Africa and then on to Italy in support of the US 5th Army. The particular bomber that Harth flew on was known as “Hells Angels.”

B-17F named Hell’s Angels after the 1930 Howard Hughes movie about World War I fighter pilots. Assigned to the 358th Bombardment Squadron.

The squadron was flying as part of Operation Tidal Wave in which American bombers would fly low-level sorties over oil refineries controlled by the Nazis in Ploesti in Romania.  The idea was to cut off the supply of fuel to Nazi Germany.  However, it was not a successful operation and failed to stop the steady flow of fuel to the German forces.

The 1st of August 1943 was a particularly bad day and became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’  On this day the bombers took a terrible pounding, and the Allies lost 53 aircraft and 660 members of the aircrew, one of whom was Second Lt. William H. Harth Jr.

Ploesti Refinery Burning After Allied Bombing Raids in 1943

Following the raid, the Romanian people collected all the bodies of the downed American servicemen and arranged to have them buried in the Hero Section of the Bolovan Cemetery.

In the early years after the war, the American Graves Registration Command went to the various cemeteries around Europe and arranged to have the bodies disinterred and reinterred in what was then known as the American Military Cemetery which was situated at Neuville-en-Condroz in Belgium.  This cemetery is now known as the Ardennes American Cemetery.

At the time that the American Graves Registration Command disinterred the bodies, they made every attempt to identify the bodies.  They positively identified 145 of the airmen killed that day, including three of the 10-man crew of the bomber on which Harth served.  The graves registry listed Harth as non-recoverable but there was one set of remains that were unidentified and listed as Unknown X-5192 Neuville.

Aircraft and ground crew of B-17 “Hell’s Angels”

The American authorities are still working to try and positively identify every unknown soldier, and after many years of research, both historical and scientific, they decided that Unknown X-5192 from Neuville could be positively identified.  The body was disinterred on the 11th April 2017 at Neuville and sent back to the US for the attention of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, along with dental records and anthropological and circumstantial evidence, they confirmed the match.  A rosette will be placed next to his name on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Italy to show that he has been found and identified.

Florence American Cemetery and Memorial

None of the current Harth family have any recollection of him as they were all born after his death but that does not detract from their joy and gratitude that their family member has been identified and brought home for burial.

Harth’s niece, Bonnie Hipkins, of Irmo, received his body at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport and he was buried with full military honors at the Fort Jackson National Cemetery.  The family was presented with Harth’s Purple Heart.