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Missing WWII soldier from Maine to be buried near hometown

The Boston Globe 11/12/2022 Camilo Fonseca
U.S. Army Air Forces Sgt. Zelwood A. Gravlin, of New Vineyard, Maine, was 21 years old when he was killed in a raid against Romanian oil fields during World War II. © Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency U.S. Army Air Forces Sgt. Zelwood A. Gravlin, of New Vineyard, Maine, was 21 years old when he was killed in a raid against Romanian oil fields during World War II.

Nearly eight decades after his plane was lost over Eastern Europe, a World War II aircraft gunner from rural Maine will be laid to rest Saturday in a cemetery near his hometown.

Sergeant Zelwood A. Gravlin, of New Vineyard, will be buried with full Military Honors in Avon following an 11 a.m. memorial service at the Phillips Area Community Center, according to his family.

Gravil had been listed as missing-in-action since 1943, when his B-24 Liberator bomber was shot down over Romania. His unidentified remains were first interred there, and later moved to a military cemetery in Belgium, where he lay for decades alongside other missing soldiers.

In July, as part of a longstanding effort to identify the remains of lost American servicemen, Gravlin’s remains were identified through DNA analysis on July 12, according to the federal Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA)

“I feel like it’s completed,” said Gravlin’s great-niece, Susan White, said in an interview. “I’m happy. He’s finally home.”

For White, the memorial service will mark the end of her family’s long search for answers. “My dad, my dad’s mother, they were always trying and searching to get answers,” said White, 58.

Gravlin served in the US Army Air Force during World War II, assigned to the Ninth Air Force’s 343rd Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bomb Group, according to the DPAA. As the armorer-gunner of a B-24D nicknamed “Four Eyes,” the 21-year-old Gravlin participated in Operation Tidal Wave, a massive bombing mission on Aug. 1, 194,3 targeting Romanian oil refineries that were fueling the Nazi German war effort.

“Four Eyes” was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and crashed, said the DPAA. According to Honor States, a nonprofit documenting American war casualties, none of the 10 crewmembers survived; Gravlin’s crew joined over 200 airmen lost in the raid that would become known as “Black Sunday”.

As part of the government’s effort to identify the remains of lost servicemen, White asked Gravlin’s nephew, her uncle Terry Worcester, to provide investigators with DNA samples.

In July, White received a call from investigators that Worcester’s DNA had yielded a “nearly 100 percent” match. “[They] called me out of the blue one day and said, ‘We found your uncle,’” she said. “I fell out of my chair. I was just shocked.”

White said her search for answers had been as much for her late father as it was for Zellwood.

“My dad took an interest,” she said “He would reach out at least once or twice a year to find if they had any updates. And my dad made me promise... that I would keep it going.”

She remembers the story told by her father of how the news of Zellwood’s loss affected the family.

“My great-grandmother didn’t really believe that he was dead until she got his stuff from the Army,” she said. “They shipped over all his personal belongings, and there happened to be a letter addressed to her — because they would write back and forth all the time — and when she got it back, there was no postage on it. She knew then that he was gone.”

Worcester said Zelwood’s death was not discussed in the Gravlin household. Growing up, there was a single reminder of his uncle’s absence: an 8x10 portrait of a man in uniform on Ida Gravlin’s living room wall.

“It was probably harder for my grandmother [than it was for us as grandchildren], being her son and all,” said Worcester, now 75. “It was something that was never talked about or brought up in the family. Those were different times.”

Ida Gravlin will finally be reunited with her son on Saturday, when he is buried next to her in Avon’s Mile Square Cemetery. Several active members of Gravlin’s old squadron will travel from their base in Louisiana for the service. Members of the Maine National Guard will attend. Governor. Janet Mills has recorded a video message, thanking Gravlin for his sacrifice.

“I feel great for my great-grandmother [Ida],” said White. “I’m sure she’s looking down, my dad’s looking down on all of it and saying, ‘Thank You.’”

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