Verla Tomlinson finally got a chance to say goodbye to her big brother Wednesday, 70 years after he died in a Papua New Guinea jungle.

The burial at Pendleton’s Olney Cemetery was a long time coming. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Ray Thompson, 25, and nine other men vanished from the sky in 1944 after setting out on a bombing mission. Searchers could not locate the wreckage, and two years later the men were declared dead.

In 1973, 2002 and 2008, B-24 wreckage and the remains of the 10 airmen were discovered at three different sites and sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory in Oahu, Hawaii, to be sorted and identified. Blood from two of Ray’s cousins helped investigators match DNA and conclusively identify his remains.

On Wednesday, about 65 family members and others joined Verla at a graveside service. Ringing the site were a couple dozen leather-jacketed Patriot Guard Riders who had ridden motorcycles from La Grande. Each biker held an American flag.

Of all those in attendance, only Verla actually had met the man they honored. Memories played in the 85-year-old’s head as the haunting melody of “Taps” swept over her.

“It was very emotional,” she said, afterward. “When I heard ‘Taps,’ it was the breaking point.”

She pictured her half-brother, a gentle giant who had feet so large her parents had to special order his shoes. During the Great Depression, when the six Thompson children and parents shared a two-bedroom Pendleton home, Ray often refereed arguments and smoothed ruffled feelings.

“Ray was the mediator,” she said. “We respected him.”

When Ray enlisted in the Army in 1942, he kept up his big brother role by not telling his siblings and parents that his job involved flying. As far as they knew, he worked on the ground as an airplane mechanic.

They discovered the truth when a military representative knocked at the family’s front door and said Ray had gone down in a B-54 bomber.

The family got some closure in 1973 when a Papua New Guinea forestry worker stumbled upon aircraft wreckage and found scattered human remains and four sets of dog tags. One of the tags belonged to Ray E. Thompson. Family members watched as the mixed remains and dog tags were interred at Arlington Cemetery.

Wednesday’s graveside service, however, closed a final chapter.

“His plane went down in the South Pacific and he was lost for decades,” said Rev. Chris Clemons of the Pendleton Nazarene Church. “Today, his family is able to bring him home.”

Emotion flickered in the faces of those who watched Verla receive her brother’s purple heart and a freshly folded American flag that had draped the coffin.

In the crowd was Army Sgt. Daniel Chatman, who had escorted Ray Thompson’s remains from the identification laboratory in Hawaii. In Portland, he and National Guardsmen escorted the remains from the plane to a waiting hearse for the drive to Pendleton.

“It was an honor,” he said.

The family contingent included a nephew who was named after his uncle and two of Ray’s first cousins, Vernitta Searles of Pendleton and Leah Lundberg of Walla Walla, who watched from wheelchairs. Both were young when their cousin died and never knew him. The women’s DNA, however, helped investigators make the identification. The DNA had to come from the mother’s side, they were told. Verla, only sharing a father with Ray, didn’t qualify.

“We were the only two left,” Lundberg said.

Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Let’er Buck Post participated in the service and hosted a lunch afterwards at the VFW hall. Surrounded by family members there, Verla said she felt closure.

“He’s home,” she said. “He’s at rest.”

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Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

        

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