SIOUX RAPIDS, Iowa | Sherri Peterson leaves her house in Waterloo and drives west to meet her father, Merwin "Andy" Anders, of Okoboji, one week before Memorial Day. Under blue skies and bright sunshine, they decorate a pair of graves at Lone Tree Cemetery south of Sioux Rapids.
One grave marks the final resting place of Charles and Wealthy Anders, Merwin's parents.
The other grave features a bronze plate next to Charles and Wealthy Anders. While it bears a marker for their oldest son, Alden Pearl Anders, it remains empty, dedicated to the memory of an aviation radioman with the U.S. Naval Reserve shot down in the Pacific Theater on June 16, 1945. He was 21.
"My folks never talked about it much," Merwin says, glancing at his brother’s marker. "Our family always figured his body was at the bottom of the ocean."
For decades, that explanation was offered, but didn't suffice. Enter Pete Hittle, a retired Sioux City music teacher who married Nancy Mahoney, a daughter of Colleen Mahoney, and Alden's niece, 37 years ago.
Hittle, a history buff, lives with Nancy near New Orleans. His curiosity about the fate of Alden Anders piqued in a 1991 party for Wealthy Anders, who was about to turn 100.
"We were all sitting at the party and a friend of Wealthy asked her what she wanted for her birthday," Hittle remembers. "Wealthy said, 'I'd like to know what happened to my son.'"
Hittle begins scouring what documents he can, reading letters Alden sent his mother as he served with the Naval Reserve. From what Hittle can ascertain, his wife's uncle began flying missions in January 1945 in the Makassar Straits, Netherlands East Indies, which is now Indonesia.
"They were to fly and harass Japanese ships, trying to sink them as they worked to resupply Japanese ground forces that were starving in a series of islands in the area," Hittle says.
Their plane, a PB4Y-1, the Navy's version of the B-24, was shot on June 16, 1945, during a run over Makassar Harbor. An eyewitness said the plane was hit and disappeared into the clouds for 10 minutes. It returned, took another hit and spun into ocean waters thought to be 15,000 feet deep.
One crewmember, Philip C. Stretcher, survived the crash. According to Hittle, Stretcher was taken to the Japanese version of the Gestapo. He was identified, interrogated and beheaded, then buried and his grave marked on June 19, 1945.
One day after the crash, four bodies washed ashore. All four were buried in a Christian cemetery there. The following day, five bodies washed ashore and received the same Christian burial.
No one accounted for the remaining member of the crew.
The family received word of Alden's MIA status through a Western Union telegram left at the end of the lane leading to their farmhouse near Albert City, Iowa. Colleen Mahoney, of Sioux City, wasn't yet a teenager when she grabbed the telegram that late June day and brought it to her mother in their kitchen.
"My mom told me to go into the field to get my dad," Mahoney remembers. "They didn't give us the news in person. How cruel is that?"
The family had just relocated to rural Albert City, Iowa, in Buena Vista County. They returned to Sutherland, Iowa, where Alden had graduated from high school in 1940. They had a memorial service at United Methodist Church in Sutherland.
"I remember our planting was delayed that year because of wet and cool weather," says Merwin, a 1942 Sutherland High graduate. "Our neighbors around Albert City were real nice and helped us finish our crop planting."
Charles Anders died in 1973; Wealthy, in 1991, just shy of her 100th birthday. They were buried at Lone Tree Cemetery, surrounded by members of Wealthy's extended family, the Doyles. A bronze marker, "In Memory of Alden Pearl Anders," was placed next to them.
Five years ago, Hittle began digging for more information. A break occurred two months ago when he met with members of the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency in a "Family Information Day" in New Orleans. Upon his arrival, Hittle was shown a dossier on Alden Anders, complete with the most recent information.
He learned that the Defense Department agency did an exhaustive search of this crew, since they were – and are – classified Missing in Action.
Apparently, after the war the American Graves Registration Service recovered the remains of Stretcher and six men initially interred at the Makassar Christian Cemetery, then reinterred them at the U.S. Military Cemetery at Barrackpore, Bengal, India.
Hittle noted that the remains of nine men were held in six caskets that were moved at the time.
Subsequently, they were reinterred once more, this time in 1947 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, in grave sites bearing no names.
More pieces of history were stitched together in the spring of 2016 when the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency visited Makassar, in Indonesia. The team investigated nine aircraft crashes that took place around the time Anders' plane went down.
"They had divers who found wreckage of the plane. They also found the son of the cemetery sexton (at Makassar) and spoke with him," Hittle says. "That's the first time I knew about what had happened."
So, is Alden Pearl Anders buried in Honolulu?
Hittle believes so. He is now working with family members to gather DNA samples to be sent to the Defense Department POW/MIA Accounting Agency. If DNA samples from at least six of 10 crew members can be gathered, families may petition for an immediate exhumation of the grave site in Honolulu, an event that may finally may help make a positive identification of Anders and the other men shot from the sky that fateful day.
After decorating the grave on Monday, that's what Sherri Peterson and her dad, Merwin Anders, did. They went to swab Merwin's cheek for a DNA sample. "My DNA kit came in the mail today," said Anders, 92.
Colleen Mahoney, 84, has submitted a DNA sample as well, doing what she can to bring closure to a family tragedy rarely discussed for decades, a loss that, for them, came mere weeks before the free world toasted victory and an end to World War II.
"Everyone was dancing in the streets like 60 days later as this family, back in Iowa, asked, 'Where is my son?'" Hittle says.
The retired music teacher holds fast to a goal that is two-fold: First, he'd like to let family members of other MIAs know of the work done by the Defense Department unit.
Second, he hopes Alden Anders' body can be identified and returned to Sioux Rapids, to fill an empty space beneath his marker at Lone Tree Cemetery, in a spot next to Charles and Wealthy Anders, who went to their graves forever grieving and missing their 21-year-old son lost at sea.