Lawhorn’s Lawrence: An empty veteran’s grave and the Memorial Day efforts to fill it
An empty grave doesn’t do much to provide closure.
That’s a sentiment rural Lawrence resident Dennis Domer has come to understand well over the decades. It first came to him as a child growing up in Centralia. His father would take Dennis and his three brothers to the cemetery every Memorial Day.
“And there would be Uncle Carol’s grave,” Domer recalls.
It had the big white cross above it and all the other markings that are due a fallen veteran. Years later, Dennis himself would play Taps over the grave as part of the small town’s Memorial Day service.
But everyone knew it was still an empty grave.
“The grieving period never ended,” Domer says. “If he would have been found, it could have ended 60 or more years ago.”
On Jan. 1, 1943, Sgt. Carol Domer was not even supposed to be on the B-24 bomber named Crosair. But a war creates many unexpected turns, including some as mundane as an impacted wisdom tooth. A wisdom tooth indeed was bothering one crew member of the Crosair. Another crew member simply missed his transport to the airfield. That left the Crosair pilot in need of two new crew members to make a bombing run against a Japanese airfield in Papua New Guinea.
The pilot went to the maintenance crew to find volunteers. The two missing crew members were gunners. No piloting experience was necessary, only some know-how with a gun. Sgt. Domer, a good-old Kansas kid, had such experience.
He came aboard the plane, and the crew told him he could have the seat in the tail of the plane.
“When you look at a picture of the plane, you see where the tail is flipped up over the fuselage,” Domer says. “When it crashed, I’m sure it killed him instantly.”
Seeing the Crosair hasn’t been the problem for quite awhile now. It is about 100 feet below the surface of the Solomon Sea in a small spot between New Guinea and the island of New Britain.
Crew members of the plane used their maps and compasses to diligently record the locations and relay them via radio as the B-24 first lost two of its four engines and then lost the remaining two as the sun rose on the next day.
Evidently, you don’t forget a location like that.
Fast-forward to the year 2000, Earnest Ray Rhodes, the radioman for the aircraft received a message that a diver was on the tiny island of Kawa between New Britain and New Guinea. The diver had heard a story from the residents there. The natives of Kawa still talk about the day when the plane went into the ocean and when the Americans came ashore via lifeboat.
Eight Americans came ashore. The Crosair had nine crew members that day.
Rhodes, according to a memoir Domer has, was asked whether he could recall any information about where the Crosair had crashed. Rhodes began drawing a map. Two years later, a diver found the Crosair sitting on the sandy bottom of the Solomon Sea, almost entirely intact — except for a broken tail.
In Rhodes’ memoir he remembers the crash landing well. When the plane hit the water, he was “momentarily stunned.” Looking up from the cockpit, he saw the escape hatch. He made it to the surface, and found other crew members who also had survived.
Rhodes swam to the back of the plane, “where it was a mass of shredded metal.” Another crew member was helping Sgt. Fred Diggs — the other man who had volunteered with Domer to fill out the crew that day. Diggs was badly hurt and would later die en route to a hospital.
Rhodes ended up holding Diggs while a life raft was being inflated. The other crew member — Sgt. Theodore Elias — went back to the plane. Sgt. Domer was still there, and he was trapped.
But he also was gone.
Upon placing Diggs in the life raft, Rhodes returned to help with Sgt. Domer. By the time Rhodes arrived, Domer was nowhere to be seen.
That’s how you end up with an empty grave in Centralia.
Today, there is hope of filling that grave.
Just last week, the Domer family received news from U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s office that a nearly 15-year effort to get the federal government to send a recovery crew to the wreckage of the Crosair has gained new life.
Moran’s office told the Journal-World that the director of the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency has confirmed that a recovery mission will be made to the site this year.
“It is a testament to the Domers’ love and perseverance that this mission is slated to take place, and I’m honored we can help heal the wounds of war for at least one Kansas family,” Sen. Moran said in a statement provided to the Journal-World. “Whether in 1943 or 2016, our nation has a responsibility to live up to the promise we make to our service members of ‘no man left behind,’ no matter how many years it takes. This is great news.”
Domer and his three brothers are ecstatic. Ken Domer, a retired banker from Spearville, is credited by Dennis as being the driving force in the family to keep the matter alive with Moran’s office.
“It just takes my breath away,” Dennis says of the effort that Moran and others have made to get the project this far.
But, of course, there could be an even more emotional moment to come. Taps could be played again, Domer’s 98-year old mother — who grew up with Carol and still remembers him — could be there, and the grave could be filled.
“It would be an unimaginable emotional time,” Dennis says. “It has just built up for so many decades.”
True, it may not happen. Domer doesn’t expect the recovery team to find the remains all these years later.
“That would be too much of a miracle,” he says.
But even if Carol Domer’s remains never return home, Dennis says this still will have been worth the effort. He promises at least one family member will be on the site off the coast of Kawa Island when the recovery crew does its work.
“Perhaps we can lay a wreath,” he says.
Back in Centralia, Carol’s grave will never be truly empty again. The family has done all that anyone can do to remember.
May we all do so on this Memorial Day.