The remains of a Mount Airy man, lost for 66 years after the military plane he was in crashed in France, have been found and are on their way to his family for a burial in Amelia County, Va.
Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. William S. “Billy” Cassell died on Nov. 1, 1946, when the B-17G Flying Fortress, in which he was flying, went missing after departing from Naples, Italy. The plane was bound for Bovington, England.
During the months following the loss, search and rescue attempts proved unsuccessful and the remains of the crewmen were declared non-recoverable, according to information from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Peronnel Office in Washington, D.C.
In 1947, a French military unit operating in the French-Italian Alps, near Estellette Glacier, found the wreckage of a U.S. aircraft at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. The French team recovered human remains from the site which were turned over to U.S. officials. They also reported that much of the ice-covered wreckage would likely emerge after several decades, after the glacier descended the slope. Due to technology limitations of the time, the remains could not be attributed to individuals and were interred as a group, representing the B-17G crew at Arlington National Cemetery.
From 1983 to 1999, as the glacier descended, additional remains and personal effects were recovered and turned over to U.S. officials.
In 2010, due to advances in technology, scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) re-evaluated the evidence and used mitochondrial DNA which matched that of Cassell’s two sisters in the identification of his remains.
Cassell’s sister Mary Lee Musulin said “Billy” was the first born and was five years older than her. She said he was seven years older than her brother Franklin. He also had a baby sister Hannah who only saw him once while she was in her high chair, Musulin said.
“He was a good student — a good son and a bossy brother. He was a popular young man,” said Musulin.
She said he got an after-school job working at the Jewel Box.
“For my 12th birthday, he gave me a little blue glass clock. I still have it. Whereever we have lived, it has been on my dresser. I was thrilled to death when he gave it to me. I didn’t even think he liked me,” she said with a laugh.
After graduating from Mount Airy High School, Cassell went to Newport News, Va., to get a job working in a shipyard. She said her father went with him at first and worked there until he was acclimated.
As the time came closer for Cassell to be drafted into World War II, he joined the U.S. Air Force. He was eventually sent to Frankfurt, Germany and became a radio operator on a B-17.
“Within two weeks of his time to return home, he signed up for another year because he went in so young. That’s when his plane went missing,” said Musulin.
She remembers the last time she saw him when he returned home on leave.
“I was 15. He was in his uniform. Mother was at the stove cooking, and he was trying to teach me how to dance,” she said.
Another memory Musulin shared of her brother was that he and her other brother slept in a converted bedroom in the attic.
“Franklin was 7 years younger than Billy and he was afraid to sleep up there, so he would reach over and touch him to make sure he was there, so he wouldn’t be scared,” she said.
Cassell’s family attended the funeral for him and the seven others that were killed in the crash in Arlington National Cemetery in 1947. They were all buried in the same grave. She said being there was a bit intimidating being a 17-year-old girl from Mount Airy. She remembers how the folded flags were given to each wife or mother of those who died in the crash.
While she and her husband and children have gone to visit the grave in Arlington almost every year, she feels a sense of closure knowing that he’s finally coming home.
She said her father wrote many letters to the war department concerning the crash involving his son.
“He was angry. He didn’t understand why they would have sent him on a training mission after the war was over and in weather that would have caused them to crash.”
About six years ago, she got a phone call from the war department. She said they sent a nurse to her house to get a sample of her blood and a nurse to her sister Hannah Anderson’s office to draw her blood.
“My brother thought it was a farce and so did my husband,” said Musulin.
At least until three weeks ago, when the families were notified that his body had been identified. His dog tags were recovered as well.
She said a man from Fort Lee, Richmond, Va., came to their home and met with the family to explain how everything would work. They were told that his remains were in Hawaii. The family was told to set a date for the funeral.
On Friday at 11:40 a.m., the family will be driven onto the tarmac at Richmond Airport to receive the casket. Musulin said his remains will be enclosed in an Army blanket in the casket. Also enclosed will be a full-dress uniform from that era. She will be presented with his dog tags, which she said she plans to give to her sister.
She said this has been a stressful time even after all these years.
“I thought for years he would turn up. Of course, he didn’t, but I’m glad they were finally able to find him,” said Musulin. “This has been a very emotional experience.”
After the family watches the casket being loaded into an awaiting hearse, his remains will be driven to Piedmont Baptist Church where the service will be held. There will a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”
Musulin said she will be presented the folded flag, which she will give to her sister.
Anderson said that even though she doesn’t remember her brother, he has always been in her heart.
“It’s just amazing. I’ve been totally blown away — after 60 years when there had been nothing. I don’t remember him in person, but he’s been in everybody’s hearts and minds since then.
“This has brought closure. We are happy for our parents. Hopefully they will know that we have finally brought him home,” Anderson said.
He will be buried beside his parents Payton and Estelle Cassell in a community graveyard in Amelia County, Va., on Sunday at 2 p.m.
Anderson said everyone in the Amelia community has been excited about his homecoming as well.
Reach Mondee Tilley at email@example.com or at 719-1930.