North Dakota, Minnesota families work to bring home remains of veterans killed in WWII prison fire
Relatives have sought help from U.S. senators to have remains disinterred from a military cemetery in the Philippines and brought back to the U.S.
FARGO — Relatives of a Dahlen, North Dakota, veteran killed in a Japanese military prison fire during World War II are seeking help to have his remains brought back home.
U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Irvin C. Ellingson was among 62 American service members held captive at the prison that caught fire in May of 1945 as a result of an American B-29 bombing raid.
None of them survived.
After the war, remains were recovered from the prison site; of those, more than two dozen were identified as American service members.
But the remains of 37 other Americans, which might include Ellingson, could not be identified and were buried as “unknowns” at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
Ellingson’s nephew, Lon Enerson, is part of a group of families determined to change that.
“We've waited 76 years for our family to get his remains back,” he said.
Enerson is one of dozens who’ve submitted DNA samples to the cause.
With today’s DNA and facial reconstruction technology, the remains can be disinterred and brought back to the U.S. for identification.
A roadblock, however, is preventing that from happening.
Since the remains are commingled, the Department of Defense has a threshold for disinterment — at least 60% of those veterans’ families must provide DNA samples or similar identification in order to make matches.
Currently, that figure from the prison fire casualties is within less than 1% of the threshold.
“If it doesn't happen soon, I'm going to have to pass this on to the next generation to keep looking,” Enerson said.
In a letter signed by 17 U.S. senators, the veterans’ families are asking Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for an exception to the policy and for immediate disinterment of the remains.
The signees include Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith of Minnesota.
In a statement, Hoeven said he’s been in contact with families of those service members and will continue to press for the "expedited return of their remains.”
“It’s an opportunity to give the loved ones who are still alive some peace of mind,” Cramer said in a statement.
Enerson said he wants to support other families who are in the same situation.
“There is hope, even after all these years,” he said.
Shot down over Tokyo
Enerson is a veteran who served stateside toward the end of the Vietnam War. He believes he was the last person drafted in Walsh County.
“I’m very proud of my service,” he said.
Enerson lives in St. Cloud and was raised in Fordville, North Dakota, just miles from where his uncle Irvin Ellingson grew up.
Ellingson lived on a farm near Dahlen, in neighboring Nelson County, about 50 miles northwest of Grand Forks, the second oldest of eight children to Tommy and Ella Ellingson.
Sometime after graduating high school in 1936, Ellingson enlisted in what was referred to then as the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He trained as a radar operator for 18 months stateside before going over to Saipan, in the Western Pacific.
Ellingson was proud of his family and his Norwegian heritage, and in letters written home, he yearned for his mother's meals, Enerson said.
On April 14, 1945, Ellingson was aboard a B-29 on a combat mission when the plane was shot down by Japanese fighter aircraft over Tokyo.
Ellingson’s cousin, Con Thoe, worked as an aircraft mechanic in Saipan and was among the first to learn that Ellingson’s plane hadn’t returned from the bombing mission.
He ended up writing a heartfelt letter to Ellingson’s parents, giving them the tragic news.
In the summer of 1945, the Army sent a telegram to the family that Ellingson was officially considered missing in action.
Of the 11 crewmen on the plane, Ellingson was one of six who actually survived, only to be captured and die six weeks later in the military prison fire on May 25, 1945.
Japanese prisoners made it out of the fire safely, but prison wardens didn’t ensure the same for the Americans, according to historical accounts.
After the war, several were tried for war crimes for not helping to save the lives of American detainees. Their sentences, death by hanging, were commuted to life in prison with hard labor, according to those accounts.
Recovering the caskets
Two others from the Midwest were among those dead in the Tokyo military prison fire.
The remains of Cpl. Allen L. Morsch, of Enderlin, North Dakota, were identified; but like Ellingson, the remains of 2nd Lt. Harold J. Nelson Jr., of Duluth, were not.
Ellingson has one living sibling, Leland Ellingson, 88, of Crookston, Minnesota, who hopes the remains can be identified soon and buried in the Middle Forest River Cemetery in rural Dahlen, alongside his parents and other siblings.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, founded in 2015, is tasked with recovering U.S. military personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from designated past conflicts.
Relating to the 62 Americans who died in the Tokyo military prison fire, the DPAA has received 37 family reference or DNA samples, which equates to 59.68%, just shy of the threshold.
But the families maintain, with support of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010, that since 25 of the service members’ remains were identified and returned to the U.S., those men shouldn’t be included in the calculation, and thus, the threshold has been reached.
Time is of the essence.
Disinterments can only occur from November to May, Enerson said, because the other months are the rainy season in the Philippines.
Enerson hopes those caskets buried in the American Cemetery in Manila can be brought back soon so the identification process can begin.
There is also a move underway to excavate a soccer field built over the original site of that Tokyo prison, specifically, Cellblock 4, where the Americans were imprisoned.
Enerson said it’s estimated only about a third of the remains were actually recovered initially, and there may be important artifacts, including military dog tags, underneath that soccer field.
In his statement, Hoeven said he was aware of those excavation efforts, and he fully supports the DPAA’s mission to bring every missing American service member home.
It would mean the world to Enerson’s family to not have to question the location of Ellingson’s remains, “to have some peace and some closure,” he said.