Photo courtesy of DPAA

Missing World War II soldier finally identified, remains returned home to Columbus relative

December 17, 2018 - 7:51 am

After 73 years, Joseph Natvik is finally home.

Natvik, an airman in the U.S. Army serving in World War II, perished when his C-109 aircraft crashed in the treacherous terrain known ominously as “The Hump,” between India and China on July 17, 1945. According to the Army, an extensive search was conducted to locate the downed plane, but eventually, the four crew members were declared missing in action.

Natvik, a care-free 20-year-old from Madison, would not be returning to his family and the girlfriend he left behind. The crash occurred about a month before the end of World War II.

For decades, the Natvik family wondered what really happened to Joe. The Army informed the family of the crash but a body hadn’t been found. Natvik didn’t have a chance to receive a proper burial with full military honors … until last month.

Thanks to the work of independent investigator Clayton Kuhles, a small part of Natvik’s remains were discovered in a deep ravine. Kuhles located the plane’s wreckage in 2007 and through some reluctant help from local Indian residents, obtained the remains of Natvik and the pilots, First Lt. Frederick Langhorst, from New York, and fellow First Lt. Allen Turner, from Massachusetts. The fourth crew member’s remains are still unaccounted for.

One of Natvik’s bone fragments matched the DNA profile of Joan Link, a Columbus resident, and the soldier’s niece.

“The Army had a piece of my uncle’s rib and they cut part of it out to test for my DNA for a match,” Link said.

With the help of the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Natvik’s remains were flown from India to Hawaii to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport Nov. 21. Natvik was given a full police escort from Milwaukee to Koepsell-Zeidler Funeral and Cremation Services in Columbus. On Nov. 25, Natvik was buried at Roselawn Memorial Park in Monona in a casket adorned with an American flag. The Army provided Link with up to $9,000 for the burial.

“An Army officer went from Hawaii, way down to the burial,” Link said. “He accompanied that casket the whole way.”

Josh Koepsell from the funeral home said he was proud to assist the family in Natvik’s burial. Lt. Dennis Weiner, acting chief of the Columbus Police Department, also expressed his gratitude for helping a lost World War II veteran return home.

“I was happy to help because this is something that we do and take care of, but hardly ever in a joyful way,” Koepsell said. “She was so excited that she was finally able to recover her uncle’s remains and then have a burial and a military funeral.”

According to the military, Langhorst and Turner were also returned to their families and buried in late November.

“It was pretty neat that (the burial) was over Thanksgiving weekend because Joan had time to bring in some of her family members,” Koepsell said. “I mean it was literally about giving thanks for bringing him home.”

Along with Natvik’s rib bone, the Army placed a new uniform with military honors inside the casket. The military also provided pallbearers and an honor guard for the burial.

“So technically he was ‘dressed’ in a full military uniform,” Koepsell said.

The experience was emotional for Link who appreciated the work of Kuhles, the military and the Indian government for bringing her uncle home. In addition to the burial, Link received four medals honoring Natvik for his service.

“It means a lot that our country does this for our fallen soldiers,” she said.

According to the DPAA, out of more than 400,000 American soldiers who died in World War II, nearly 73,000 are still unaccounted for. About 26,000 have been assessed as possibly recoverable.

“They were able to recover the pilot, co-pilot and my uncle, but nothing of the other soldier,” Link said. “The family said his wife had a hard time after he went missing.”

Link said the crew was especially brave to travel through the notorious “Hump.” From the spring of 1942 until the fall of 1945, allied forces flew transport planes over this mountainous terrain on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. It was considered a very dangerous route, but the only way to transport supplies to China, which was also fighting Japan.

“I think my uncle’s plane was transporting fuel to China,” Link said.

Link, only nine years old when Natvik was declared missing, doesn’t have many memories of her uncle. She remembers him as a tall, lanky young man who always carried a smile and enjoyed life. Link’s mother, Natvik’s sister, never forgot her brother.

“When she would come out of surgery, she was always calling for Joe, and my father thought she was calling for me, but it was her brother,” Link said. “It was just always engrained in me, from my mother and grandmother, to try and find him. I never gave up hope.”

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