Closure for one veteran’s family

Marco Veterans Day observance honors Korea-era and all vets

Lance Shearer

The POW/MIA flag flies just under the Stars and Stripes at Veterans Community Park. It calls on Americans to remember those who never returned from war, but whose whereabouts were never verified.  

Coast Guard Auxiliary members salute on Nov. 11, 2017. Marco Island commemorated Veterans Day Saturday at Veterans' Community Park, with speeches, flags, and patriotic music.

It can seem as though, after so many years have passed, there will never be closure for the families whose loved ones went to battle and just disappeared. But Saturday, at Marco Island’s Veterans Day ceremony, one family was recognized during the observation, having finally learned what happened to their soldier. 

In 1944, Second Lieutenant Donald E. Underwood of Michigan was a crew member, a bombardier, on an Army Air Corps B-24 bomber in the Pacific Theater of Operations. His plane crashed at the water’s edge on Tarawa Atoll, the scene of a horrific battle in which U.S. Marines suffered over 30 percent casualties assaulting the island, and out of the 3,636-man Japanese garrison, only one officer and 16 enlisted men survived to surrender. After the battle, hundreds of U.S. servicemen laid in temporary graves. 

Although several crew members survived the crash of Lt. Underwood’s B-24J, “Miss Bee Haven,” the 23-year-old lieutenant was killed, considered MIA/KIA, and his body was listed for decades as “unrecovered,” said his niece, Joni Mehall. She and her husband, Mike, are seasonal Marco Islanders, splitting their time with their northern island home, Grosse Ile, Mich.

Donald Underwood, who was killed in WWII and just had his remains identified. Marco Island commemorated Veterans Day Saturday at Veterans' Community Park, with speeches, flags and patriotic music.

Her father is Donald’s little brother, the youngest of four siblings. He was 18 when Donald Underwood was reported killed in 1944. Joni’s grandmother, said Joni Mehall, had repeatedly written the Army – during World War II, the Army Air Corps was a division of the Army, not yet a separate service among the armed forces – seeking more information about the fate and final resting place of her son, and asking for his body to be returned, but she died never learning more. 

Five years ago, with the efforts of U.S. Rep. John Dingell, himself a WWII veteran, and his wife Debbie Dingell who succeeded him, and the Rick Stone Foundation and History Flight, the family received a communication from the government asking for a DNA sample from one of Donald’s close family members. Joni’s father, now 91, provided it, and earlier this year, the family was notified that, after 73 years, the remains had been found on Tarawa, identified and could be returned to the family.  

Family members held a commemorative service in Michigan and on Nov. 28 they will gather at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where Lt. Underwood will be laid to rest with full military honors. His brother will be there, along with Joni and her husband.  

The Marco Island Veterans Day ceremony took place under warm clear skies, and included a POW/MIA ceremony conducted by Lee Rubenstein of the American Legion, who choked up as he recounted the story of Lt. Underwood, and asked Joni and Mike Mehall stand to be recognized.  

While World War II veterans – including Marco Island’s ageless, at 98 years old, Herb Savage – were honored, a major focus of the day was veterans of the Korean conflict, the “forgotten war,” technically a United Nations police action and never officially ended.  

Special guests, including U.S. Congressman Francis Rooney, thanked the Korean War-era veterans, and Vietnam War veteran Bill Duncan read “Korean War History” to the group.  

Congressman Francis Rooney speaks to the assemblage on Nov. 10, 2017. Marco Island commemorated Veterans Day Saturday at Veterans' Community Park, with speeches, flags and patriotic music.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel and Marco Island City Council Vice-Chair Charlette Roman read a proclamation honoring the Korea vets, and each was handed a copy.

Keith Dameron acted as emcee, Susan Doyle sang the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful,” Mick Thorstenson flew overhead trailing smoke in his T-28 trainer and Steve Reynolds coordinated the music. Local first responders, veterans and military auxiliary groups provided the Color Guard and Honor Guard, Nancy Carrington of Marco Island Florist supplied flowers for the ladies and Cub Scout Pack 234 led the Pledge of Allegiance.  

And after years of no one sitting on the spacious paved rosette emblazoned with service emblems during such observances, shady pavilions placed on it gave the audience the permission they needed to sit there.  

A Marco Island tradition at Veterans Day and Memorial observances, the reading of “A Tribute to America” by Marine Corps veteran Mike Stapleton as his wife Janet sung patriotic songs, was ended as Mike Stapleton’s name, along with Phil Ballou, who always enlivened the ceremonies in his Revolutionary War uniform, was read among the veterans who had passed away.