Detroit — A Michigan airman whose plane crashed during World War II has been identified among the remains recently discovered on a Pacific Ocean island, the U.S. government said Thursday.

The Metro Detroit family of 2nd Lt. Donald Underwood got the news last weekend during a meeting with the Defense Department. A 90-year-old brother, George, was in disbelief.

“He threw his neck back and put his hankie to his mouth,” said son-in-law Mike Mehall. “It was a complete surprise. We were starting to think we were running out of luck.”

Underwood, who was 23, was a member of the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was aboard a bomber known as the “Miss Bee Haven” when it crashed in shallow water after takeoff from the Gilbert Islands in January 1944. Bodies were recovered and buried.

The area now is the country of Kiribati. Three months ago, Underwood’s remains were discovered along with others on Betio island by a Florida-based group, History Flight. The group, which searches for the remains of U.S. war dead, contacted the Defense Department.

Underwood’s dog tags were among the remains. His identity was confirmed by the government through further investigation, said Katie Rasdorf, a historian and volunteer with History Flight.

“I was shocked, really. This has been going on for years,” said George Underwood, who turns 91 next week.

Donald Underwood grew up in River Rouge and was an electrician at Ford Motor, where co-workers called him “Sparky.” Two months after the plane crash, the pilot who survived wrote a letter to Underwood’s mother, describing the bombardier as willing “to go to any risks” to attack the enemy.

George Underwood kept a rosary and a picture of his brother in his bedroom, praying that his remains would someday be found and returned to the U.S.

In March, with no progress reported, the family held a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery. Underwood now will be buried at Arlington. His medals include the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Mehall praised the staff of U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell for working closely with the family.

“Seventy-three years later,” he said, “Donald will be coming home.”


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