Remains of World War II airman from Georgia returning to US for burial in Florida

After 79 years, the remains of a World War II soldier from South Georgia are returning to the U.S. for burial.

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Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. William O. Wood, who grew up in Valdosta, will be buried Aug. 1 at the Tallahassee National Cemetery in Florida, the Valdosta Daily Times reported. The Tallahassee cemetery is the closest military burial ground to Valdosta, according to the newspaper.

The graveside services will be held 79 years to the day after Wood, 25, was killed when the B-24D Liberator he was flying in as a tail gunner crashed in Romania, the Daily Times reported. The “Hell’s Wench” aircraft was shot down during a mission to destroy Romanian oil refineries, which were used by the Germans to refuel tanks that were rumbling through Europe, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.

Wood was part of an Allied air attack called Operation Tidal Wave, which was based in Libya. The bombers were tasked with destroying nine refineries near the Romanian city of Ploești.

The attack consisted of 177 Liberator heavy bombers and 1,725 crew members, the Democrat reported. The mission suffered heavy losses, with 51 planes -- each with a 10-man crew -- failing to return.

Wood would receive the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart, according to the Daily Times.

Wood’s remains were not identified after the war, the Daily Times reported.

Later, unidentified military members were relocated to the Unknowns in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan in Romania, according to the Democrat. When the war ended, the remains were disinterred for identification.

The 80 servicemen who could not be identified were moved to the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, according to the newspaper. In 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began exhuming unknown soldiers, and through DNA, Wood’s remains were identified, according to the Democrat.

Wood’s oldest surviving relative is his 82-year-old nephew, Fred Barton of Chiefland, Florida, who said he was shocked then a staff sergeant told him that his uncle had been identified.

“I was surprised to find out I was the oldest survivor,” Barton told the Daily Times. He was only 3 years old when his uncle died.

Barton’s wife, Joan Barton, said the Army had collected DNA samples from her husband’s mother and sister -- both now deceased -- but no one expected anything to come of it.

Joan Barton said she received a “black book” from military officials that described Wood’s military mission and what happened after the plane was shot down.

“It’s sad, but it is good to finally know these details,” she told the Democrat.

Bevis Funeral Home in Tallahassee is handling the arrangements, according to Wood’s online obituary.