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WWII soldier’s remains to return home

Seventy-three years after the disappearance of a WWII B-24 bomber in India, the remains of the late Lt. Robert Eugene Oxford of Concord will finally return home to Pike County. The plane, with eight crew members aboard, was on a supply run over ‘˜the hump’ on Jan. 25, 1944 when it went missing. Lt. Oxford was the only Pike County soldier classified as Missing in Action for all those years. Oxford was born in 1919 in Concord to Charlie and Bessie Oxford as the youngest of six children. He graduated from Concord High School in 1938 and worked on his family’s farm and at the Concord Post Office when World War II broke out. He was engaged to Susan Brown. He decided to join the Army before being drafted and ended up being a bombardier aboard the plane nicknamed the Hot as Hell. ’He was on his last mission and then they were coming home,’ said his niece Merrill Roan, wife of Bill Roan. ‘He left behind his mother, father, three brothers and a sister and his fiancee.’ On Jan. 25, 1944, the Hot as Hell departed Kunming, China for Chabua, India in the flight path that was the standard route over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. The aircraft never arrived at its destination. Months later its eight-member crew was declared administratively dead. Among the dead was Oxford, serial number 0-663308. ’Missions were considered dangerous but important, because most of the almost daily flights were an essential part of the Allied effort to keep China in the fight against Japan,’ said Post 197 historian Bryan Richardson. ‘Each bombing mission against the enemy required several supply ferries, so combat cargo crews flew regardless of weather.’ The plane’s crash site was initially discovered Dec. 7, 2006 near Damroh, Arunachal Pradesh State, India, by Clayton Kuhles of Prescott, Arizona. Kuhles enjoyed taking trips to hike in the mountains in India and one of his guides asked if he’d like to see remains from a WWII crash. He has made efforts to help recover several other military crash sites since and details each find at miarecoveries.org. Family members of the late Lt. Oxford are hopeful that the U.S. military will contract with Kuhles to help recover the remains of other fallen soldiers and return them to U.S. soil. ’We’ve got closure now, but there are seven other crew members who died with Eugene and we want them home too,’ said Roan. ‘Since the crash site was 10,000 feet above sea level, they were only able to search in the lower portion of the area.’ The Department of Defense returned to the area to conduct recovery efforts in 2015. Efforts began on Oct. 2, 2015 with a 10-mile hike through treacherous terrain climbing nearly 10,000 feet to the base of the summit where a base camp was set up as home for the team’s 35-day mission. To reach the site, the team walked a mile and a half each day, climbing about 1,000 feet along the way. Working on the mountain side was extremely risky as the team had to dig on slopes ranging from 30 to 60 degree inclines. They were only able to search half of the crash site because the ground was covered with moss and when they started digging down, there were large boulders that started shifting the mountainside. ’Eleven days into the excavation, the team made an uplifting discovery as they unearthed potential evidence of the aviators they were searching for,’ said SSgt Erik Cardenas. ‘The sense of accomplishment and excitement permeated throughout the team members as the possibility of identifying one of the missing was a close reality. Only a few days later the team was once again rewarded as more evidence emerged from the mountainside.’ In 2016, Merrill and Bill Roan traveled at their own expense to Hawaii for a ceremony honoring the arrival of the remains on U.S. soil. Family members of the eight men who lost their lives in the crash were present at the ceremony, although they did not know whose remains were recovered at the time. DNA evidence was used to identify the remains as those of Lt. Oxford. DNA from Susan Roan Smith and Bill Roan, both children of his sister Martha Oxford Roan, was submitted after the crash site’s discovery in 2007. Tommy Oxford, the son of his brother Paul Oxford, also submitted DNA to help identify Lt. Robert Oxford’s remains. ’We are still kind of in shock. We knew that remains had been found but we also knew the chances were very small that it would be Eugene because they only found the remains of one of the eight crew members,’ said Roan. ‘We have prepared our children – two daughters and one son – to take over the fight to get him home, because we weren’t sure it would be done in our lifetime. He had one brother, Fred Oxford, alive in Atlanta when the plane was first found in 2006. We were able to show him pictures of his brother’s plane halfway around the world and when he died, he left money in case his remains were found so he could be buried in Concord. My kids remember their grandma Kate Oxford Road and how she used to talk about Eugene all the time and she was with him immediately when she died.’ The remains of Lt. Oxford will be escorted back to Atlanta from Hawaii by U.S. Army personnel in late April. Military members from Ft. Benning will escort Oxford’s surviving family members to the airport in Atlanta for a ceremony to be held on the tarmac. Family members are hoping Pike County citizens will line the roads to welcome home the soldier who died for his nation so many years ago. ’We want the community to come out and welcome him home,’ said Roan. Lt. Oxford will be buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Concord with the rest of his family after his homecoming.

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