On POW/MIA Recognition Day, meet the non-profit bringing service members home — History Flight

Elizabeth Howe
September 18, 2019 - 2:10 pm
Repatriation

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In its six years of recovery efforts, History Flight has brought home the remains of 325 United States service members from across the globe — and they're a non-profit. 

As its name suggests, History Flight started out as something completely different from what it does now. 

"History Flight started out restoring WWII airplanes and doing public education and historic preservation by taking the planes on tour and taking people for rides," said History Flight founder Mark Noah. "During that period of time, we were invited to be technical advisors on a recovery project out in the South Pacific." 

That's when Noah learned about the 78,000 service members still missing from World War II, the 8,000 still missing from the Korean War, the 1,600 still missing from Vietnam, and the 200 still missing from the Cold War. 

"It's a little-known fact that really has disappeared from the American milieu," Noah said. "So upon becoming educated on that subject we shifted the focus of the organization from the airplanes — which are great pieces of American history — to the people that disappeared while operating them."

Now, History Flight works hand-in-hand with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to bring home the remains of American service members.  

Meet some of the people who bring soldiers' remains home

Recently, History Flight worked to bring home the remains of at least 22 service members who died during the Battle for Tarawa. 

Tarawa Remains
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Above: U.S. Marines participate in an honorable carry for the possible remains of unidentified service members lost in the Battle of Tarawa recovered by History Flight.

PHOTOS: At least 22 servicemen killed in the battle of Tarawa come home

"We started the Tarawa Project 12 years ago in 2007. In 2013, we started the actual excavation portion. We've recovered more than 300 American individuals from Tarawa and more than 100 of those have been identified. It's very exciting," Noah said. 

The first five years of the project were spent researching and remote sensing the area — History Flight works with recovery technology that it pioneered itself. 

"We pioneered the use of remote sensing technology to find unmarked burials. We were very effective in doing that — using a combination of GPS technology and cartography and ground-penetrating radar magnetometry and cadaver dogs in historically relevant areas," Noah said. "We found dozens of American servicemen buried underneath roads, present-day buildings, present-day parking lots just by being able to use technology as a tool to travel back in time and find lost locations."

History Flight
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Above: Jessica Gadis, an osteologist with History Flight, studies remains found from the battle of Tarawa.

However, those initial research years would not have taken quite as long if History Flight were able to get the resources it needs. 

"The biggest challenge is resources. It's the only limitation. No one is really aware of the fact that there are 88,000 missing Americans from the wars of the 20th century. And most Americans don't donate to support us. So the number one challenge that we have is resources."

Noah and a friend from high school paid for most of the Tarawa Project — which costs more than a million dollars. Currently, History Flight has four field teams working across the globe. Each team costs roughly $8,000 per day to keep operational. 

But, of course, it's all worth it. Especially, Noah said, when he knows he's bringing home the friends and loved ones of other service members. 

"We were able to bring a number of Tarawa veterans back to Tarawa to experience some of the repatriations of their comrades," Noah said. "The most recent grave we recovered 33 individuals from were individuals from the 6th Marine Regiment. One of the veterans we brought back to Tarawa was a 6th Marine Regiment veteran who had survived that Japanese assault. Some of the guys in that burial were his personal friends."

Repatriation
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Above: U.S. Marines salute a transfer case during a repatriation ceremony for the possible remains of unidentified service members lost in the Battle of Tarawa.

"That's one of the most wonderful things about this process — seeing the family members and the veterans experience the reuniting of their loved ones."

To learn more about History Flight, volunteer, or donate, visit the History Flight website

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