Just before the nation marks the anniversary of its founding on the Fourth of July, the remains of a former Woodlawn High valedictorian who served as a U.S. Navy airman returned to Louisiana on Tuesday after a record-setting dive to recover his plane.
Airman Matthew Chialastri, an aviation boatswain’s mate on the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, went down with 10 other crew and passengers in the Philippine Sea 500 miles off the Japanese island of Okinawa during a routine mission Nov. 22, 2017.
While eight survived, Chialastri and two others didn’t.
Despite an extensive aerial search immediately after the crash, it took a deep-sea salvage mission 18 months later to recover the victims’ bodies. A little more than a month ago, a crew recovered the bodies of Chialastri, the pilot of the twin-engine C-2A Greyhound logistics plane and another sailor.
The plane had been found Dec. 29, 2017, at a depth of 18,500 feet and required, at the time, the deepest recovery attempt ever of an aircraft, the Navy said in a statement. The plane’s depth was beyond the capability of the U.S. 7th Fleet in the region and the Navy had to call in an additional salvage team from Washington, D.C., to aid in the recovery, according to USNI News.
Chialastri’s dad Phillip said he was told in May that the remains of his son and the two other sailors, the pilot, Lt. Steven Combs, and Airman Apprentice Bryan Grosso, an aviation ordnanceman, had been recovered.
Early Tuesday afternoon, Phillip went to New Orleans and traveled with Matthew’s mother to greet their son’s remains at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Phillip said his emotions were mixed: relieved his son had been found, but still sadden about such an immense loss.
“They’re bringing him home,” Phillip said as he traveled to New Orleans.
Recent milestones in Matthew Chialastri’s return from the Philippine Sea have coincided with serendipitous timing with national holidays centered on patriotism and military service.
The day after Memorial Day, Chialastri’s parents and those of Combs and Grosso were at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to see their remains returned to the United States in caskets draped in U.S. flags, Phillip Chialastri said.
“Seeing them come off the plane and seeing two mothers and two sisters sobbing is the saddest noise I’ve heard in my life,” Phillip Chialastri said.
He said the family intended to take his son’s remains to a funeral home in Baton Rouge and have them cremated. A memorial service had previously been held for Matthew, who graduated atop the Woodlawn High School Class of 2013. No additional service is planned.
Phillip Chialastri said the return of his son, who has a 19-year-old brother, Marcus, isn’t necessarily closure because he’ll never stop caring for his eldest boy.
“But there is a finality behind it. I’m glad my imagination no longer drifts to where he could be,” Phillip Chialastri said.
© 2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
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