As Ted Gardner’s hands clasped the American flag at the end of the burial service at Arlington National Cemetery, his thoughts were as much on his late father as they were on the older brother he hardly knew. After 70 years since Army Air Corps Sgt. Charles A. Gardner was declared missing in action, the younger brother’s DNA had helped identify his remains and enable him to be buried with full military honors at Arlington, Va., on Dec. 4.
But Gardner, now 86 and living in Manning, S.C., never forgot the day his father received the telegram in the spring of 1944 informing him that his son was missing in action after his plane was shot down just a few weeks after his 32nd birthday. It was the only time Gardner, then 16, could remember seeing his father’s tears, but the heartache seemed to remain until Charles Biddle Gardner died in 1973.
“My daddy was at our kitchen table drinking coffee when someone from the telegraph office came out and gave him the telegram saying (Charles) was missing in action,” Gardner said. “That was the only time I ever saw my daddy put his head down on the table and cry.”
Gardner was a radio operator in the New Guinea chapter of the “Jolly Rogers” of the 90th Bombardment Group’s B-24 Liberator units. On April 10, 1944, Gardner and 11 other crew members were declared missing after their B-24, nicknamed “Hot Garters,” was shot down over the Madang Province during a planned attack on an anti-aircraft site at Hansa Bay on the north coast of Papua, New Guinea. The bay was a major Japanese naval base and transit station during World War II. Natives told Allied investigators they had seen five men parachute from the B-24 after it was hit. Four of them were captured and executed by the Japanese.
In letters he wrote to his family, Gardner mentioned he was participating in flying missions over the Japanese-controlled islands that surrounded Australia. In another letter written to his mother, he wrote about not completing his parachute training, so if something happened, he saw himself going down with the plane, said Ted Gardner’s wife, Peggy.
Decade after decade passed, and the family had given up hope of ever getting Gardner’s remains back. Then, the family received a call last year from Karen Johnson, a mortuary affairs specialist with the Department of the Army’s Casualty, Mortuary Affairs and Operations Center’s Past Conflicts Reparation Branch.
Johnson told the Gardners that remains had been found in New Guinea.
“I will cry when I tell this part,” Peggy said. “They didn’t want to get our hopes up, but they wanted to see if it could possibly be somebody who was related to us, so they sent us the DNA packets, and Ted, our two sons and their sons sent their DNA.
“When Karen Johnson called about the DNA matching Charles, goose bumps went up and down my arm. I could not believe it, and I just started crying,” she said. “I didn’t know I was going to cry because this was somebody I never saw. But this meant so much to us because I knew how much it had meant to Mr. Gardner.”
The DNA confirmed that Gardner’s remains, as well as those of eight other crew members, were found in New Guinea between 2008 and 2011. Two others were identified and buried in their hometowns, and five others who could not be identified are scheduled to be buried at Arlington in 2015.
The only memories Gardner has of his brother are from letters and phone calls and stories his father told of the time he spent with him before he was sent to the Southwest Pacific. The elder Gardner and his siblings grew up mostly in California, while his father remarried in 1927, a year before Ted’s birth, and he grew up in Mullins, S.C.
“He was so heartbroken,” Peggy said of Gardner’s father after his first wife took the children to the West Coast. “You could just tell he was so heartbroken about not getting to see those boys grow up.”
When he got the call that his brother had been identified, Gardner had to make the decision on whether he should be buried at Arlington or beside his father in Mullins.
“When they contacted me, I said he’d never lived in the South,” Gardner said. “He’d grown up on the West Coast, but there really wasn’t anybody left there except for one nephew (Harvey March Jr.). In my mind, the best place to put him was at Arlington because he was a serviceman who had died in service. So (Arlington) should be the proper place to have his remains buried.”
Because Gardner was an Army Air Corps Airman, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as “The Old Guard,” conducted military honors for his burial service, which included a caisson, escort platoon, colors and casket team, firing party and the U.S. Army Band’s “Pershing’s Own.” Before Gardner received his brother’s flag and the three-rifle salute, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Ted Randall summed up the family’s feelings on the long-awaited day.
“For our comrade, Sgt. Charles Gardner, our nation bestows military honors,” the chaplain said at the end of his remarks. “In life, he honored the flag, and in death, the flag will honor him.”
As he listened to the chaplain, Gardner couldn’t help but reflect on his father and what he might have felt to see his son laid to rest among the nation’s other heroes at Arlington.
“Deep down, I wouldn’t say I felt exactly happy, but it sent something through me, knowing that he had been found and wishing my father could have been alive, so he could also know that,” Gardner said. “It was just a feeling of thankfulness that (Charles) had been found, and they had finally recovered parts of his body.”