Bill Parkinson was only a kid – a long-haired hippie just out of high school – the day they buried his namesake.
He stood silently as a caisson drawn by six chestnut horses carried two flag-draped coffins that were said to contain the remains of his uncle and nine other men.
Nobody really knew for sure.
Three decades had passed since the men’s B-24 bomber inexplicably vanished into a Southeast Asian jungle. By the time natives found skeletal remains among rusted, scattered wreckage, the ravages of time and weather had taken their toll.
The discovery of a few dog tags was enough evidence to ease the hearts of loved ones gathered that day in 1974 at Arlington National Cemetery.
Surviving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers wiped away tears; nieces and nephews too young to know the World War II dead stood by their side.
A squad of riflemen fired a three-shot volley; a bugler sounded taps, and the ground swallowed the caskets.
More than 30 years after his death, William R. Parkinson – Norfolk native, strapping young husband, 22-year-old bomber pilot – was laid to rest Oct. 18, 1974.
Soon, he will finally come home.
“I was shocked when we got the call,” a cleaner-cut Bill Parkinson said this week, nearly 40 years after attending the Arlington memorial service for his uncle.
“The call” this month came from the Department of Defense. They found additional remains at the crash site, and this time, they knew without a doubt that some of them belonged to William Parkinson.
“I thought, my God, they really mean it when they say ‘No man left behind,’ ” said Otis Parkinson, another nephew who grew up hearing stories about his “wild Uncle Bill” but never had the chance to meet him. He was born in 1944, the year his uncle’s plane disappeared.
Almost 60 years later, and nearly 30 years after the initial discovery, a native found human remains while foraging through a Papua New Guinea jungle in 2003.
The tip eventually reached the Pentagon’s Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, and in 2008, a team returned to the crash site.
They spent a month searching the area, picking through thick vegetation and sifting through layers of dirt displaced over the years during occasional landslides. Eventually, they uncovered cockpit controls, a complete wing, propellers and a radio call-sign data plate from the bomber.
Among the metal, they found skeletal remains.
Four years later, using DNA tests and dental comparisons, government scientists positively identified four of the former crew members, including the plane’s co-pilot, Second Lt. William Parkinson.
“Can you believe it?” his nephew Bill Parkinson said from his home in Thomson, Ga. “Seventy years later, and they finally found him. They never forgot.”
The B-24 Liberator and its crew were on their 13th combat mission when the plane disappeared shortly after taking off. After air and sea searches, the men were listed as missing in action, and then, after the war had ended, declared dead.
They were among more than 79,000 that the U.S. government was unable to recover and identify after WWII. Today, more than 73,000 men remain unaccounted for.
“He was an uncle I never met,” Otis Parkinson said, speaking from his home in Jacksonville, Fla. “But you hear so many stories over the years, you sort of feel like you knew him.”
Secondhand stories and newspaper clippings are about all that remain of William Parkinson’s legacy; most everyone who knew him is dead.
He would be 91 years old if he were alive today. He married his high school sweetheart, Alice Malbon, after joining the military, but they didn’t have a chance to have children.
A front-page story published in The Virginian-Pilot after the initial discovery in October 1974 quoted boyhood friends describing William Parkinson as “tall (about 6-foot-2), blond, broad-shouldered and ‘strong as an ox.’ ”
The youngest of four brothers, he grew up playing hopscotch and shooting marbles near his home on 37th Street. He spent many summer days watching “moving pictures” a few blocks away at the Newport Theater.
A boyhood friend, the Rev. Alfred D. Carson, told the newspaper he remembered the ill-fated aviator as “a happy-go-lucky guy who liked engines and airplanes and always wanted to fly.”
After graduating, he enrolled at the College of William and Mary extension in Norfolk, now Old Dominion University.
War changed his plans. He joined the Army Air Forces shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A photograph in the Nov. 7, 1942, Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch shows the flier at Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, Texas, where he trained as a pilot. He and 14 others in the photo were preparing to practice night landings.
The caption describes the training as dangerous work but notes that Parkinson and his teammates “show no signs of nervousness.”
His disappearance on May 7, 1944, rocked the family. For years – even after the Army declared him dead in 1946 – his parents and brothers went on hoping that he was recovering in a hospital somewhere.
His brothers told stories about their youngest sibling, recalling his love for adventure and driving fast cars, as if he were still alive.
Those stories inspired Linn Parkinson to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. He joined the Air Force, became a pilot and flew missions from Thailand during the Vietnam War.
“Most of us never even met him,” said Linn Parkinson, 72, who was just an infant when his uncle signed up for war. “But he’s still been a part of our family all these years.”
Bill Parkinson didn’t think much of it when he learned as a boy that his father had named him after his missing uncle. The honor finally sank in during the train ride up to Arlington in 1974.
“Suddenly, I felt like I had a legacy, and a responsibility to live up to it,” he said.
Two Army captains delivered the cremated remains to Linn Parkinson’s home Friday in suburban Atlanta.
Later this year, the family plans to drive to Norfolk and sprinkle his ashes at the cemetery where his parents were buried. Linn Parkinson said they’ll attach a foil balloon to the grave marker to celebrate Parkinson’s return after 69 years.
It will read: “Welcome Home.”
Pilot researchers Jakon Hays and Maureen Watts contributed to this report.
Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, firstname.lastname@example.org