WW II veteran’s remains buried at Arlington National Cemetery


For more than 70 years, a Flandreau serviceman’s grave was nearly 33 yards under water between two coral cliffs in the Pacific Ocean.

Last month, the remains of World War II veteran Lt. William Q. Punnell, 27, who was missing after his plane was shot down in 1944, were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

In that moment, Punnell became real to the only surviving relatives who had known him as a hero through brief family stories.

“It’s opened up a bunch of emotions that I never knew were there,” says Dennis Kelvie, a Caldwell, Idaho, piano tuner who heard few details of his uncle William because his family found it too painful to talk about. His burial changed that. “They took us out to the starting point (at Arlington). They transferred his coffin to the caisson, and we all went to where his internment was. There was a full marching band. They had the 21-gun salute.”

Kelvie, 73, was born two weeks after his uncle was shot down, but as the only surviving male in the next generation, his DNA was used to positively match DNA from Punnell’s femur bone found at the crash site.

The discovery was made by Project Recover, a group that uses science and technology to find the underwater resting places of Americans who have been Missing in Action since World War II in order to provide recognition and closure.

“We all now look at these crash sites and we look at them as gravesites. They’re really not airplanes to us anymore. An American died in defense of our country,” said Pat Scannon, who had been looking for Punnell’s plane for at least 10 years as founder of the BentProp Project, searching in increasing circles around a location where he believed it went down. It turned out to be about 600 yards further away from the landmark.

“When we really got together and went after trying to locate it, …we found it very rapidly, I think within a day,” he said of the discovery that included about 25 people.

“That’s a very special moment,” Scannon said. “We just all stopped and looked at the debris field. There was a moment of silence anyway where all you could hear was bubbles. My initial thought was we’re now going to be able to tell the family something after all these years.”

Even though Punnell’s family hasn’t lived in Flandreau since 1949, his story of service to his country started here when his plane was shot down over the Pacific. The Flandreau serviceman’s F6F-3 Hellcat took a hit to the tail, which was shot off, while on a July 25, 1944, mission over islands that make up the Republic of Palau in the West Pacific. Punnell’s plane crashed into the water and sunk without exploding or burning, according to historical reports.

His parents, Mr. and Mrs. W.G. Punnell, initially received a telegram that he was missing in action, advising them that a letter from the Navy would follow, a 1944 story in the Moody County Enterprise reported in breaking the official news to hometown readers.

Punnell, born April 15, 1917 in St. Paul, moved to Flandreau as a teenager in 1930 with his family who owned Punnell five and dime. In 1935, he graduated from Flandreau High School. He attended what is now South Dakota State University to study engineering and later Purdue University, before joining the Navy Air Corps in 1940. Three years later he married his local sweetheart Marian May, the daughter of former mayor and dentist, Dr. and Mrs. S.L. May, in a ceremony in Texas.

Punnell was trained as a flight instructor but because he was anxious to get into combat duty, he later trained to fly a Hellcat. Before his death, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, but it isn’t known if the commission was ever formally signed, according to a Moody County Enterprise story. He was survived by his wife, his unborn child, his parents and two sisters.

His wife named their son William and later married another Flandreau man, and her son was then called William Punnell McDowell. Both wife and child had died before William Punnell’s remains were found. She died in 2005 in Ohio, and her son died in 2011 in the Syracuse, New York area, where he had been a craftsman woodworker since the 1960s.

Kelvie said his family never remained in contact with his uncle’s wife and son over the years. His son, Bill, who also attended the internment ceremony, along with Kelvie’s wife, Bertie, said within one more generation, Punnell would have been forgotten if he hadn’t been found.

“I just wish my grandparents and my mother and aunt would have known that he could have been found. But they were gone,” Kelvie said. His mother and aunt, who also graduated from Flandreau, had been back to South Dakota for class reunions over the years, he said.

He calls the discovery a miracle. “I was totally blown away,” he said. “That’s like looking in a needle in the haystacks of haystacks.”

At the Arlington service, he expected a hand full of people but about 50 people came, including people with Project Recover, military and civilian archivists, a two-star admiral and others working on a documentary.

“The guys that were carrying the casket, and the guys that were involved in this thing they were in tears,” he said. “It was just totally amazing. I tend to be a little bit stoic. But when I got home, the tears flowed and they have several times, many times.”

Punnell was born in St. Paul, Minn. In 1930, he moved with his family to Flandreau where he graduated in 1935 from Flandreau High School. He attended what is now South Dakota State University to study engineering and later Purdue University, before joining the Navy Air Corps in 1940. Three years later he married his high school sweetheart Marian May, the daughter of former mayor and dentist, Dr. and Mrs. S.L. May, in a ceremony in Texas.

Punnell was trained as a flight instructor but because he was anxious to get into combat duty, he later trained to fly a Hellcat. Before his death, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, but it isn’t known if the commission was ever formally signed, according to a Moody County Enterprise story. He was survived by his wife, his unborn child, his parents and two sisters.

His wife named their son William and later married another Flandreau man, Wade McDowell. Young William was then called William Punnell McDowell.

In March 2014, Project Recover divers, including Scannon and Project Recover co-founder Mark Moline, found the wreck of the Punnell’s Hellcat about a half mile from shore at about 7 degrees above the equator and shared the information with the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA agency which could initiate the identification, recovery and repatriation for Punnell. A year ago, the government announced he had been accounted for after being killed during the war.

Scannon, a Californian who has been doing this type of work for 20 years, met Moline, who is from Delaware, in Palau and started talking about their work. In the process, they have become very busy and have identified 30 American aircraft associated with 113 MIAs. “We’ve had three funerals just in the last six months related to findings, Moline said.

Their methods involve acoustic tools, including sonar, and other equipment that wasn’t available in the past. Once an aircraft is located, there are steps and procedures to follow that include the U.S. government, including a forensic recovery because the area is considered a crime scene, Scannon said.

In the case of Punnell’s plane, they had good historical information and general target. When they found the aircraft tail unattached, it further matched eye witness accounts from that day. Once the identification was confirmed, the family is notified and given a choice where to bury their relative.

In the meantime, the submerged wreckage and human remains had been a burial spot for decades. “It’s a tombstone for someone who we hope will soon be coming home,” Scannon said.

There are more emotions than the excitement of discovery, Moline said. “You know it’s a resting spot for a U.S. serviceman,” he said. “It’s humbling, exciting, all these mixed emotions. What’s becoming more apparent for me is the excitement for the family to have closure.”

Both men also attended Punnell’s funeral.

“Each family responds differently, but being able to have even a small part in causing a given serviceman to come home and be with their family, it’s very emotional.” Scannon said. “We’re all very disciplined scientists and have experience across a wide range that’s necessary to make this happen, but we all have our handkerchiefs when we go to these ceremonies.”


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