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Remains of Michigan WWII pilot found, coming home for burial

A U.S. Navy or Marine Corps Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat on the ground with its engine running at Guadalcanal, circa 1942 (U.S. Navy)

PARMA, MI – Less than a week before being shipped off to Hawaii to serve as a pilot in World War II, Second Lt. Elwood Bailey married his Parma High School sweetheart.

Two months later, in August 1942, while battling in aerial combat in Guadalcanal in the Pacific, Bailey went missing in action. Efforts were made to locate him, but a year later he was determined killed in action, with details unknown.

More than 70 years passed with no news. In 2012, an island villager spotted the wreckage, sold the wing of the plane to a museum and notified U.S. authorities.

The investigation closed in September 2017, determining the teeth and bone fragments found at the site were Bailey’s.

“We really didn’t get much detail about him from my mother or her parents or my dad. We knew that he had died heroically in aerial combat in Guadalcanal,” said Wayne Tompkins, Bailey’s nephew. “The unfortunate reality is, (they) all died not really knowing for sure what had happened to him.”

Tompkins and his brother are Bailey’s closest living relative. They’ll be back in Jackson County this weekend, as Bailey’s remains are brought back and buried next to his parents.

Bailey is being buried with full military honors at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at Chapel Cemetery in Parma. The ceremony is open to the public at the E. Michigan Avenue cemetery between Chapel and Dearing roads.

Tompkins’ mother was Bailey’s only sibling. She didn’t talk much about her late brother, he said.

The family first learned that Bailey’s remains might have been discovered in 2014, when Tompkins’ son – who’s in the U.S. Navy – found the information on

Tompkins’ brother was also asked for a DNA sample. While the DNA couldn’t be matched definitively, Bailey’s dog tags were identified at the site. The number on the aircraft was also Bailey’s.

Bailey died five years before Tompkins was born.

“The fact that the circumstances of his death were unknown created a real sense of anguish for my family,” Tompkins said. “It’s nice to finally think maybe their souls will be a little more at piece, knowing that this whole thing has been brought to a conclusion.”

Tracking down ties

The recent discovery also coincides with a Jackson College project. A group has been working on a documentary of Bailey, Bill Maher and Zenneth Pond – a trio of former students who joined the civilian pilot program together.

“They’re all from pioneer families here in Jackson County,” said Diana Agy, Jackson College English professor. “This was a new kind of pioneering, this aviation.”

Like Bailey’s family, Agy and students at the college have been seeking to piece together Bailey’s story. Artifacts like the discovered dog tags and Boy Scout knife from the wreckage along with old family scrapbooks are helping tell the tale.

Pond also died in World War II, while Maher died in recent years. But Bailey has always been the biggest mystery of the three, Agy said.

“Elwood Bailey, from what we can see, he was an athlete, he loved his girlfriend, he was a steady hand,” Agy said. “But other than that, we really don’t know – yet. But we’re planning on finding out.”

Digging through old family photos and watching his uncle’s life story begin to unravel, Tompkins said he’s learned more about Bailey in the last year or two than what he gathered the rest of his life.

“He goes from being somebody whom I had no relationship with to somebody that I now feel very intimate (with),” Tompkins said. “It’s going to be very moving.”

Tompkins never met his uncle’s wife, Eunice Speet, who died in 2015. Although he’s recently connected with two of Speet’s daughters – who plan to attend Saturday’s ceremony.

After Bailey went missing, Speet waited for word on her husband. Years later, she eventually met another man and, as a courtesy, asked Bailey’s parents for permission to remarry, Agy said.

Having children with the second husband, Speet didn’t let the memories of her high school sweetheart die.

“They have this tremendous respect for my uncle and his memory,” Tompkins said. “Their mother raised them giving them glowing stories about her first husband.”

While cemeteries rarely warrant smiles, Tompkins said Saturday’s ceremony should be a joyful occasion.

“It’s just such an amazing story,” Tompkins said. “Leave no man behind, is kind of what it boils down to.”


©2018 Citizen Patriot, Jackson, Mich.

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