After missing in action for 78 years, U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Alan E. Petersen, 23, of Brownton, was laid to rest Oct. 30 in Glencoe.
Sheridan Petersen, 78, Alan’s nephew, described the experience as “jaw-dropping.”
“It was just unbelievable,” he said.
Alan Petersen’s story begins in Brownton, where he was born Oct. 22, 1919. After completing his education at Brownton Public Schools, he operated a mink ranch near Brownton. Always wild about airplanes, he was commissioned Dec. 6, 1942, in the Army Air Force — just shy of a year since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He also got married that month to Vivian Newell.
Petersen served in the Middle East command beginning in January 1943. That summer, he was assigned to the 345th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 9th Air Force. On Aug. 1, 1943, the B-24 Liberator aircraft on which Petersen was serving as a bombardier crashed as a result of enemy anti-aircraft fire during Operation Tidal Wave, the largest bombing mission against the oil fields and refineries at Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, Romania.
Of the 177 attacking B-24 Liberator bombers, 53 failed to return. The attack destroyed 42% of the total Romanian refining capacity.
A veteran of 47 bombing missions, Petersen and his Liberator crew were credited with sinking five Axis ships and downing five Nazi planes over Greece, Italy and Sicily.
IDENTIFYING FALLEN AMERICAN PERSONNEL
Petersen’s remains were not identified following the war. The remains that could not be identified were buried as unknowns in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania.
Following the war, the American Graves Registration Command, or AGRC, the organization that searched for and recovered fallen American personnel, disinterred all American remains from the Bolovan Cemetery for identification. The AGRC was unable to identify more than 80 unknowns from the Bolovan Cemetery, and those remains were permanently interred at Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, both in Belgium.
In 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, whose mission is to recover United States military personnel who are listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from designated past conflicts, began exhuming unknowns believed to be associated with unaccounted for airmen from Operation Tidal Wave losses. These remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for examination and identification.
To identify Petersen’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used DNA analysis of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is known as the mother-line, and Y chromosome DNA (Y-STR), which is known as the father-line.
Sheridan said it was about two years ago that he was originally contacted about identifying his uncle’s remains. To do so, he provided a DNA mouth swab for the father-line, while nieces on Alan’s mother’s side provided a DNA mouth swab for the mother-line.
In August, Sheridan received a phone call that his uncle’s remains had been identified. From there, a government representative came to his home where he signed a “bunch” of papers.
After that, Sheridan contacted the funeral home in Glencoe to arrange his uncle’s burial — 78 years after his death. He was laid to rest Oct. 30 in a plot near his parents’ graves.
“They suggested Arlington National Cemetery or Fort Snelling,” Sheridan said. “Glencoe was chosen because that was the place for him.”
In an interesting twist, Petersen’s remains arrived Oct. 22 in Minneapolis — the date of his 102nd birthday.
He was laid to rest with a military funeral officiated by an Army chaplain with military honors provided by the Brownton Rifle Squad.
“It was a heart-warming experience,” Sheridan said. “It was a happy event. Most funerals are sad, but not this one. It’s too bad his parents and siblings weren’t there.”
Sheridan appreciated that the government took care of everything. It reached out to him and he, in turn, reached out to his relatives.
“I can’t say enough about the DPAA,” he said. “I can’t give them enough credit.”
While Petersen’s remains were identified, there are 81,600 missing service members from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and other conflicts, so the search continues. Seventy-five percent of the losses are in the Indo-Pacific, and more than 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea.
In the meantime, Petersen’s name, which is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Impruneta, Italy, will have a rosette placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
After 78 years, 1st Lt. Alan Petersen has come home.