Family hopes to bring soldier home years after his death

By Justin Hanson - bio | email

TIPTON COUNTY, TN (WMC-TV) - A Tipton County family spent Memorial Day remembering a man who died too young fighting for his country.  Now, over sixty years after his death, his family hopes to finally bring their loved one back home for a proper burial.

A flag at Shiloh Cemetery marks the grave of World War II bombardier First Lieutenant John C. Kelley.  But Kelley's grave is an empty one.

"He was shot down, captured, taken as a prisoner of war (POW) and died in a prison camp as a result of his burns," said Kelley's grand-niece, Leslie Kelley Roane.

Kelley was returning from a bombing mission over Rangoon, Burma when his plane was shot down.

The bodies of 39 prisoners, Kelley included, were placed in rice sacks and thrown in makeshift graves.

After the war ended, the bodies were exhumed.

"It was placed on a plane to be brought back to the US and that plane was headed from Rangoon to India, to Calcutta and it went down in a storm," Roane said.

For the next 64 years, Kelley's body laid there in the Indian rain forest.

His family never had closure to his life or death - just letters Kelley wrote along with memories of his very short life.

"I also remember a very hard time when the family gathered in 1945 when the family received the official confirmation of John's death," said Kelley's niece, Theta Kelley Rone.

Last year, recovery specialist Clayton Kuhles traveled to the wreckage site.  There, he discovered the cemetery where Kelley and his crew members were buried.

"Finding that plane with the possibility of bringing him home is just amazing," Roane said.

Family members plan to petition state and national elected officials to try and get the bodies back home for proper burial.

"There's twenty different states being represented by these men, and they have family members just like us looking for them also," Roane said.

If negotiations with the Indian government go well, Kelley's family says the recovery effort could begin as soon as November of this year.

To read more about John Kelley's story, click here.

For more information about the recovery of Kelley's crash site, click here, here, or here.

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