Using his police skills to find his relative’s remains from the Second World War

Formation of B-26 Marauder bombers.
Formation of B-26 Marauder bombers.

Police detective Tom McCaslin, 46, from Omaha, Nebraska, has used his skills to finds answers to the question: what led to the disappearance of his namesake uncle, Staff Sgt. Tom McCaslin, in a Second World War plane crash in France shortly after the D-Day invasion of Normandy?

He has been investigating the matter for over year to find answers.

Tom’s brother, Patrick McCaslin, 57, a retired Omaha police sergeant, said Tom has been unwavering in his pursuit.

Tom McCaslin doesn’t take all the credit, though, saying that it’s been a family endeavor to locate their relative and bring his remains back home.  He located an aerial photo that may show smoke trailing from his uncle’s badly damaged B-26 Marauder bomber.

The family is hopeful the picture and additional evidence they have discovered will sway the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — which has a lab devoted to identification at Offutt Air Force Base — to investigate the site, and bring the tail gunner’s remains back to his home state.

His uncle enlisted in 1942, and that was the last time he was seen by the family, Tom MCaslin explained.  If there’s a possibility of finding him, it should be pursued.

The situation facing the family is different, but it’s not unique. World War II took the lives of 407,000 service members, and approximately 73,000 are still missing, including 1,480 from Iowa and 727 from Nebraska.

About 50 percent of those were lost in ship or aircraft catastrophes or lost at sea and can’t be recovered.  However, many of the rest could be identified, and there’s growing public interest to do so.

The American Graves Registration Service, up until 1951, made a substantial effort to retrieve and identify the Second World War missing.

Increasingly, DNA technology has made it possible to identify bones using techniques not available in the past. Aging siblings and descendants of the missing have lobbied the government to bring home their beloved relatives.

In 2010, Congress increased funding for the two agencies then charged with locating and identifying those missing in action from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and added World War Two to their mandate. The Offutt lab was also added, opening in 2013.  However, the attempt stalled due to bureaucratic infighting and a number of scandals that encouraged then-Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to command the agencies be amalgamated and reorganized.

The families are exasperated at the delays.

The clock continues to tick, Tom McCaslin said.  They’d like to see a decision.

Staff Sgt. McCaslin joined the Army Air Corps shortly after Pearl Harbour had been attacked and trained as a tail air gunner for B-26s. He was assigned to the ‘Red Devils’ of the 555th Bombardment Squadron, 386th Bomb Group, which flew B-26s from a base in Easton Lodge-Essex, England.

Only two weeks after the D-Day landings, on June 22, 1944, McCaslin’s crew was one of 36 aircraft conducting a nighttime bombing raid against the German military headquarters in Caen, France, only a short distance from Omaha Beach.

The formation encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire; McCaslin’s B-26 fell to the ground in fragments near the village of Gavrus.  All eight crewmembers were killed. The parents of Staff Sgt. Tom McCaslin were notified soon after that he was missing in action.  He was declared dead one year later, after the end of the war.

In 1946, the body of one crew member who had been quickly buried soon after the crash was recovered and identified.  In 1986, French citizens found the remains of the four crewmen, but they weren’t identified for several years.  The bodies of McCaslin and two other crew members in the rear of the bomber, Staff Sgt. John Cantry and Tech. Sgt. Robert Perkins, remained missing.

A number of McCaslin’s siblings traveled to Gavrus in 1995 after learning of the four most recent identifications, but there was no new information.

They learned nothing additional until 2014, when a British relic hunter, Mike Jurd, found part of a scapula, Cantry’s dog tags, and some finger bones that were sent to the accounting agency and flown to its lab at Offutt in February 2015.

Almost two years have passed since, and there has been no word concerning identification.

However, Tom McCaslin’s interest in the military and airplanes paid off. He found information on the internet concerning his uncle’s squadron and utilized a community of Second World War and aviation experts to learn more.

With the assistance of Jed Henry, an independent researcher, and journalist, who had researched the Gavrus crash and assisted Jurd in finding the bones he discovered in 2014, he submitted them to the accounting agency. He gave the McCaslin family the missing air-crew records, including eyewitness statements about the crash.

Tom McCaslin unearthed a trove of information through his own efforts. He discovered that the B-26s carried large cameras to record battle damage. He contacted the Air Force Historical Research Agency in search of pictures from his uncle’s bomb group missions.

In reply, he received about 2,000 photos, including a dozen from the doomed June 22 mission. One of them, apparently taken within minutes of the crash, showed a plume of smoke rising from the debris of his uncle’s plane.

McCaslin compared it to a modern aerial photo taken from Google Earth.

What’s amazing is that it hasn’t changed much, he said. Everything fits.

He sent them to his brother Ted in St. Paul, Minnesota. He, in turn, matched the photos and noted the GPS coordinates, so if the accounting agency sends archaeologists to excavate the site, they can easily find the spot.

Patrick has been doing some investigating of his own. He went to France last year with Jim, his brother, and son Danny to meet Jurd and view the crash site.

Even though it’s been seven decades, evidence of the crash location is everywhere, said Patrick. He found a buckle from a chin strap, fragments of plastic window glass, bullets, and big pieces of metal.

On three separate occasions, remains have been located, and the government hasn’t returned there, Henry said. It’s not in keeping with the rhetoric of “no one left behind.”

But, archaeological expeditions are expensive to organize, and money is in short supply at the accounting agency. Two planned expeditions to search for Vietnam War casualties in Vietnam and Cambodia have been scaled back or delayed, Omaha World-Herald reported.

Tom McCaslin, despite his persistence, requires much help to finish his task.

They’re not up on a mountain; they’re not at the bottom of the ocean. They’re in a French forest. The agency may not find anything, but he certainly wants them to try, he said.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE