In August 1944, Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Willard R. Best was a 24-year-old gunner on a B-17 assigned to the 407th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 40th Combat Bombardment Wing, 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force.
The Staunton, Illinois, native was part of a nine-man crew in a B-17 Flying Fortress during a bombing raid over Merseburg, Germany, on August 24th. The plane was caught by anti-aircraft fire and crashed. Four crew members survived and were captured by the Germans. The rest, including Best, were killed in the crash.
The remains of Best were reported to have been interred in the Leipzig-Lindenthal Cemetery. When the war was over, the American Graves Registration Command disinterred three sets of remains from that cemetery. Two of the three could not be identified at the time.
They were declared unidentifiable and were assigned the designations Unknown X-1047 and X-183. X-1047 was determined to be the remains of two separate individuals and redesignated X-1047A and X-1047B after separation. The three sets of remains were buried in the American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in 2017.
Volunteers notified the DPAA about the burials of unknown service members which could be related to the B-17 crash. A DPAA historian researched the claim and declared that the unidentified remains could very well be from that crash.
In April of 2019, the Department of Defense and the ABMC disinterred three sets of remains and sent them to the DPAA laboratory for identification. Scientists working for the DPAA and for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used anthropological evidence and mitochondrial DNA to positively identify one of the sets of remains as belonging to Best on September 3, 2019. The discovery was announced by the DPAA on October 24, 2019.
Best’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium. A rosette will be placed next to his name to recognize that he has now been identified.
Best was born to Otto and Lena Best from Staunton, Illinois. He was the brother of Leland Elmer Best, Joyce Best and Harold C. Best. He was married to Alma L. Best of Decatur, Illinois, when he died. His remains will be buried in his hometown in the spring of 2020.
Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. Over 400,000 of them died in the war. There are still 72,650 service members who are unaccounted for from WWII. 30,000 of those are listed as possibly recoverable.
Gunners in B-17 bombers were responsible for fighting off enemy fighter planes with machine guns that were either aimed by hand or electrically powered. Half of a bomber crew was typically gunners who worked the top turret, ball turret, waist guns and the tail turret.
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Top turret gunners usually served as the flight engineer for the crew. In addition to protecting the plane from attacks from above, he was expected to know all the systems on the plane and keep track of the engines and fuel on the flight.