As United Flight 648 pulled up to Gate A12 at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday afternoon, family members, airport staff, local dignitaries and military representatives held flags, saluted and placed hands over their hearts.
After 74 years, a hero was coming home.
The remains of Navy aviation radioman 3rd Class Walter E. “Bert” Mintus were recovered on June 25 after a meticulous two-year identification effort that began with the discovery of his American aircraft, a TBM-1C Avenger, in the waters surrounding the Pacific Island nation of Palau.
Mintus, from Portage, Pa., served in U.S. Navy Torpedo Squadron Fifty One (VT-51) based on the USS San Jacinto during World War II.
He was “Uncle Bert” to Richard Kozak, 80, of Conway, Pa., who attended the plane-side service with his wife and son.
Family members, airport staff, local dignitaries and military representatives attended the plane-side service at Pittsburgh International on Nov. 8.
“It almost feels like a dream,” Kozak said. “I feel proud that I can represent all of our family members who can’t be here. It means a lot to us to finally know what happened, and that he will be buried in his hometown next to his mom and dad.”
Mintus took off from the ship on July 27, 1944, his aircraft in the lead position of four Avengers. Their mission was to bomb the Japanese base at Malakal Harbor. Witnesses last sighted the plane three to five miles ahead. Later, they saw an object believed to be an airplane on fire in Malakal Harbor.
Mintus was declared missing in action along with his two crewmates. In 1946, he was presumed dead.
But thanks to an amazing international recovery effort, Mintus’ plane was discovered in the Pacific by Project Recover, a partnership among researchers at the University of Delaware, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, and the BentProp Project. The group uses 21st-century science and technology to find and repatriate Americans missing in action since World War II.
“Moments like this are our reward,” said Pat Scannon, principal investigator for Project Recover, who was there when Mintus’s aircraft was located in the Pacific, and in Pittsburgh on Thursday. “Every time we start a mission for an MIA, we try to find a photograph to make that person real, but this is really real … when the family finally has their questions answered and now, in this case, Walter Mintus has come home.”
As is the standard for other service members making their final journeys home, airport firefighters performed a water arch salute for the arriving flight, and a Navy honor guard, along with police and other local officials, stood at attention on the ramp as the plane pulled up. The airport’s Honor Cart — specially built by employees for this purpose — transported the flag-draped casket carrying Mintus’ remains.
A documentary film crew was also present to film the emotional homecoming. Adam Zimmer, producer for Pursuit Productions, has been documenting the work of Project Recover for five years.
“Our hope is that this film will be picked up for theatrical release or by Netflix or the History Channel so that more people can become aware of the amazing work of this organization, and that there will be additional support to sustain these efforts,” he said.
Conor Lamb, newly elected congressman for the 18th District that includes PIT and a veteran himself, said it’s critical to honor those who pay the ultimate price in serving our country.
“It doesn’t matter whether one year or 100 years has gone by, they deserve the same respect and recognition from all of us, and that’s why I’m here today to pay my respects,” said Lamb.
An honor guard escorted the hearse carrying Mintus’ remains from the United cargo facility to Portage on Friday. On Saturday, Mintus was laid to rest beside his mother and father.
Click here to view more photos from the plane-side service.