Accounting for and honoring Twentieth’s fallen Airmen

  • Published
  • By Dr. Jeremy Prichard
  • Twentieth Air Force History Office

Of the estimated 407,316 U.S. military personnel killed during World War II, most have been identified and interred – including a majority of the nearly 3,000 Twentieth Air Force Airmen who either died or were listed as missing from combat.

For those not yet identified, found, and properly buried, the U.S. government continues its search. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the agency responsible for this mission. Under the motto “Fulfilling Our Nation’s Promise,” DPAA staff discharge the U.S.’s obligation to account for those lost while in military service to the country.

Among more than 100 missing individuals accounted for in 2023, the DPAA identified the remains of three WWII B-29 crew members who died when their assigned aircraft crashed in India on June 26, 1944: 2nd Lt. Walter Miklosh, Flt. Officer Chester Rinke, and Staff Sgt. Donal Aiken. Beginning in August, the agency released public statements verifying that the three individuals had been accounted for – nearly 79 years after their aircraft mishap.

One member from that mishap remains unverified: Tech. Sgt. John M. Larkins. The search continues for this last Airman to ensure he receives a proper military entombment.

Those four individuals, as well as the bomber aircraft’s other seven crewmembers originally identified in 1944, were assigned to the 678th Bombardment Squadron, a subordinate unit to the 444th Bombardment Group and the 58th Bombardment Wing.

All WWII B-29 units fell under one of two operational commands: XX Bomber Command and XXI Bomber Command. Both bomber commands reported to Twentieth Air Force, the sole authority for all B-29 crews and aircraft during the war.

Because neither the crew’s squadron, group, wing, nor bomber command were active when the DPAA accounted for them in 2023, Twentieth Air Force served as the next remaining active operational organization with a lineage tie to the deceased Airmen.



In April 1944, the Schleicher crew, named after lead pilot Capt. James Schleicher, arrived in India. They were part of the first bombardment squadron attached to Twentieth Air Force when the advanced bombers departed from U.S. factories in 1944.

They were assigned to Operation MATTERHORN, the bombing of Japanese-held areas from the China-Burma-India Theater.

On June 26, the crew departed China in a converted B-29, aircraft 42-6323 named Eileen, after delivering fuel for a forthcoming bombing mission over the Japanese homeland. The group’s first mission against the Japanese home island, targeting the Yawata Imperial Iron and Steel Works on June 15, nearly depleted the fuel reserves at XX Bomber Command’s China bases. Because Army Air Force leadership directed B-29 units assigned to MATTERHORN be entirely self-sufficient so as not to disrupt competing command logistics in the region, Brig. Gen. Kenneth B. Wolfe, commander for XX Bomber Command, set about preparing for a second strike by pre-positioning advance fuel and other supplies for the next mission.

As part of this pre-positioning undertaking, the crew of A/C B-29 42-6323, among others, was directed to airlift thousands of gallons of gasoline from India to the forward operating base in China.

One day before their aircraft crashed, Eileen departed India for Kwanghan Field, China, crossing over the challenging Himalayan Mountains – known by crews as “the Hump.” After offloading fuel out of the converted bomb bay tanks at Kwanghan, the crew set out the next day for a return flight to India, retracing much of the previous day’s flight in reverse.

Unfortunately, the crew never returned to its Indian base. Aircraft 42-6323 crashed in a rice paddy near Sapekhati, India. The first search team to reach the wreckage site presumed all eleven crew members had died upon impact.

Figure 1. An image of B-29 Superfortress #42-6323, “Eileen,” somewhere in China, 1944. (Photograph courtesy of National Archives)



Within days of the accident, seven of the crews’ remains were confirmed. Those identified included Schleicher, 1st Lt. Robert O’Shea, 2nd Lt. John Cumming, Staff Sgt. George Chesebro, Master Sgt. Warren Thieman, Sgt. Ralph Groff Jr., and Sgt. Chester Jennings.

In September 1948, an investigation team from the American Graves Registration Command classified the other four – Miklosh, Rinke, Larkins, and Aiken – as “Killed in Action/Bodies Not Recovered.”

In 2014, a follow-on team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command – predecessor to the DPAA – located the crash site and wreckage linked to the aircraft. Excavation of the site unearthed “possible osseous remains and material evidence” in 2018 and 2019, at which point scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System positively identified the remains of Miklosh, Rinke, and Aiken on May 5, 2023. DPAA historians concluded that the June 26, 1944, date of death was consistent with historical records.



Months after the DPAA confirmed their identities, teams comprised of Twentieth Air Force staff attended the interment ceremonies for the three individuals. A group attended the interment for Miklosh at the Southern Arizona Veterans Cemetery in Sierra Vista, Arizona, on Sept. 15, 2023. The same occurred two weeks later when Twentieth Air Force paid its respects at Aiken’s ceremony at the Nashville National Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee. (Coincidentally, Aiken’s final burial spot was near Schleicher’s.) Finally, a team attended Rinke’s interment at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Seville, Ohio on Nov. 6, 2023.

For each ceremony, those representing Twentieth Air Force delivered a letter from the Commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Lutton, along with a commander’s challenge coin and shoulder patches from today’s Twentieth Air Force incorporating the 1944 Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold-era wings, the first commander of Twentieth Air Force.

Paying homage to these fallen Airmen was meaningful for both the families and for today’s Twentieth Air Force Airmen.

“There’s nothing more important to our first sergeants than our Airmen and their families,” said Master Sgt. John Thompson, Twentieth Air Force’s additional duty first sergeant, who attended Miklosh’s ceremony. “We’re very thankful to be present and that Walter is home and that the family can hopefully find some peace and comfort knowing that we did not leave this Airman behind.”

Capt. Bennett Johnson, Twentieth Air Force’s chief of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile codes and current operations, reflected on the family’s decades-long pain of not having any answers.

“Seventy-nine years after Chester L. Rinke had been reported missing, he was finally laid to rest,” he recalled after the ceremony. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to know that a member of your family had been missing for 79 years, finally having the peace of mind having put them to rest.”



Eventually, B-29 operations transitioned to the Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, bringing bomber crews within range of Japan and eliminating the need to stage missions from India and China. It was from the islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian that Twentieth Air Force B-29 crews would ultimately strike at the heart of the enemy and bring an end to WWII.

But arguably the origins of that downfall – what some might consider the beginning of the end of the fighting in the Pacific – began with those initial bombing and resupplying missions in 1944.

Those early missions and sacrifices, such as those borne by the crew aboard A/C 42-6323 on June 26, 1944, were characteristic of the relentlessness of Twentieth Air Force crews who eventually brought an end to WWII in the Pacific.