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WELCOME HOME: WWII hero returns to Pike

More than 1,000 citizens from the Pike County community and across the country honored 1st Lt. Robert Eugene Oxford over the weekend after the WWII hero was returned home for a memorial service and burial. The governor gave an executive order that flags be flown at half staff in his honor. Citizens of all ages lined the roadsides from Zebulon to Concord and waved American flags during the funeral procession. Lt. ‘Eugene’ Oxford was aboard a bomber plane that was on a supply run ‘across the hump’ from China to India but the plane crashed in the mountains and never arrived at its destination. ’A true friend is one who is willing to give his life for another and Lt. Oxford was willing to give it all for his friends and it’s because of men like him that we have the freedoms we enjoy,’ said Zebulon mayor Bobby Blalock. The auditorium was almost filled to capacity during the service, with one small child in the family section waving an American flag non-stop during the singing of God Bless the USA. ’Most of us have never met the man that we are here to honor. We never had the chance to talk to him about life or to hear him laugh and make him chuckle,’ said Rev. Jeff Overton during the memorial service. ‘I’ve talked to many veterans and thanked them for being heroes for our country and without fail they say the true heroes are those who lay their lives down. This gentleman was a hero to my heroes. I can’t imagine the heartache this family has been through. Most of those who knew him best left this world without knowing he would ever be found. I feel the same way about the sacrifice the seven other soldiers made and their loved ones are due this honor. It is our responsibility and privilege to bring them home.’ Photos of the other seven airmen who lost their lives were shown on a large screen before the start of the service. Their names were embroidered inside Lt. Oxford’s coffin, including pilot and 1st. Lt. William A. Swanson, co-pilot F/O Sheldon L. Chambers, 1st Lt. Irwin Zaetz, bombardier 1st. Lt. Robert E. Oxford, engineer SSgt. Charles D. Ginn, radio-op, SSgt. Harry B. Queen and gunner Sgt. James A. Hinson and gunner Sgt. Alfred H. Gerrans, Jr. Photos of each of them – and his fiancee Susan Brown – were placed in the coffin with him. Many Chinese Americans attended the memorial service and attended the graveside service which included a 21-gun salute and Taps played on a bugle by the Honor Guard. Chinese Americans showed their respect for Lt. Oxford and his family by showing up in great numbers and also by presenting several items to his family after the burial service. They were there to honor airmen like Lt. Oxford who flew over the hump to deliver supplies while they were fighting the Japanese. They presented the family with a book which included pictures of American airmen who were rescued from crash sites as well as a Chinese flag to show unity and a smaller flag that was sewn on the back of the Flying Tigers bomber jackets asking Chinese people to protect them from the Japanese if found and to get them to safety. The American flag which draped his coffin on its journey from Hawaii to Atlanta and to Magnolia Cemetery in Concord was ceremonially presented to the family. During the service, there were two fly-overs, one with biplanes performing the Missing Man Formation and another featuring two rare AT-11 bomber planes like the one Lt. Oxford would have trained on. There are only 11 such planes that still fly and two of them, flown by John Hess and Mark Hubbard, flew over to honor his memory and sacrifice. During the memorial service, Rev. Bob McCombs told about Eugene’s time in Pike County and the farm he grew up on in Concord. It was fitting that the fields around the cemetery where he was laid to rest were filled with hay bales, cows and horses. ’His father grew scuppernongs and muscadines on his farm and created a business selling them here and in Griffin. That farm of course was the farm Eugene hoped to return to,’ said McCombs. He also shared a letter from Eugene’s fiancee Susan Brown who passed away in 2011. She shared with the family that Eugene volunteered for that last flight in order to return home to her and his family sooner. ’We rejoice because we know that Eugene has been in heaven for more than 70 years,’ she wrote in a letter to the family.

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