A patriot's return
John Almeida grew up idolizing an uncle he never met.
Marion Ryan McCown was a pilot, a Golden Gloves boxer and a sailor — a true Lowcountry prince of tides. All his life, Almeida was inspired by the family stories of his mother's brother, including the one that had no ending.
There were the tales of young adventure when McCown was a Boy Scout exploring the South Carolina salt marshes; his time as a student as Georgia Tech in Atlanta; the time he got his pilot's license.
And when Hitler and the Japanese drew the country into war, McCown responded the same way as many patriotic young men. He joined the Marines.
McCown lived an all-American life and was the perfect hero for an awestruck nephew. But a year before Almeida was born, Capt. Marion McCown disappeared over the Pacific in the dog days of World War II. They never found him.
For all his life, Almeida has remembered those stories. He inherited his uncle's uniform, some of his letters home, a few of his dreams. When he was old enough, Almeida joined the Marines and went off to war. He credited his uncle's influence.
More than 60 years passed, but Almeida never forgot.
Last summer, there was a knock on his door. It was history calling. There at his house in Jacksonville, N.C., someone from the Pentagon showed up and handed him his uncle's dog tags. McCown's crash site had been found in a hillside jungle in New Guinea.
Now, Almeida has his own story, his own connection to Marion Ryan McCown. He has to bring him home.
"People talk about closure, but this isn't it," Almeida said. "This is opening a whole new world."
Over the Pacific
The war took McCown into a world of thatch huts, tiny islands and impossibly blue water. By January 1944, he was stationed at Vella Lavella on the western edge of the Solomon Islands — the heart of the Pacific theater.
He was a pilot in the Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-321. They called themselves the "Hell's Angels," and they were the terror of the Pacific skies. In a short time, they shot down at least 39 Japanese aircraft, maybe a lot more.
McCown flew an F4U Corsair, one of the more recognizable airplanes in the war. He might have had a leg up on the other guys in flight school — he had his pilots' license when he enlisted.
It seemed everything was going well for McCown. He sent letters back home to Charleston, detailing his adventures to his sister, Claudia. That month, he sent a thank-you note for an I.D. bracelet that his family had mailed to him. He said he hoped the bracelet would bring him luck.
McCown used up any luck he had shortly after that.
About the middle of January, McCown was on a mission when his Corsair developed engine trouble over the ocean, nearly 50 miles from base. He had to ditch but got through it unhurt. A PT boat found him. That was his luck.
McCown could have taken some time off to recuperate, but that wasn't his style. When he learned his squadron had a mission scheduled for Jan. 20, he volunteered immediately. His family would be haunted by the knowledge that he didn't have to go.
They were escorting bombers to Rabaul, the site of a key Japanese air base. McCown climbed into his new Corsair and soon was airborne, flying in formation alongside 1st Lt. Robert See, his wing man and the squadron's ace.
Rabaul, in New Guinea, was nearly 200 miles away. Somewhere on the path, the Hell's Angels ran into enemy fighters, dozens of them. They were outnumbered.
The sky erupted in gunfire and smoke. At one point, See spotted a Zero — the most common of Japanese fighter planes — on McCown's tail.
That was the last anyone saw of Marion Ryan McCown for more than six decades.
For years, the Pentagon has searched quietly for the remains of thousands of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
Based in Hawaii, teams of researchers and forensic anthropologists struggle through harsh terrains and delicate diplomatic negotiations to bring America's soldiers home. Hattie Johnson, head of Marine Corps POW/MIA affairs outside Washington, has been on the job for 22 years and said the stories never fail to amaze her.
Last summer, she got a good one. The report said McCown's plane had been found on New Britain Island in New Guinea. The Corsair mostly was intact, its cockpit still sealed. Inside, the anthropologists had found pieces of a .45 pistol and some human remains.
They asked her to find McCown's next-of-kin.
Before Johnson even could begin the search, her phone rang. John Almeida, a pathologist in Jacksonville, North Carolina, had found her.
Almeida got the news from a cousin who had seen a newspaper article about the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command team. The story, published in The Boston Globe, recounted the team's discovery of McCown's plane. The JPAC crew had no idea McCown had any surviving relatives.
The trip to North Carolina was different than most for Johnson. As a pathologist, Almeida spoke her language, and had no trouble understanding what had happened based on the forensic evidence.
But that was not what impressed her the most. Almeida, she could tell, knew everything about this story except its ending.
"He had his uncle's uniform, his dress blues and some wings that he had sent home," Johnson said. "I realized that he thought highly of his uncle."
McCown will be buried beside his mother, Grace Aimer McCown, at the Unitarian Church in Charleston next month. He died at age 27 and will be buried a week after what would have been his 92nd birthday. He had no wife, no children. There are some relatives but few who remember him.
"I don't think anyone's going to be at the funeral who remembers him," Almeida said.
Mike McDaniel, funeral director at Stuhr's West Ashley, said Almeida might be surprised. He is expecting a large turnout.
"This is a hero coming home," he said.
And for Almeida it is, after all these years, an ending to a story he has known his entire life.
Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postand courier.com