A block off Augusta’s main street, right by the pool, stands a white building the Augusta Area Historical Society has dedicated as a museum to the history of the town.
Inside, on the wall to the right, hang two carvings: one of a waving American flag, one of the state of Montana with a gold star on Augusta. Beneath, hang nearly 130 portraits -- one for each person in the Augusta area that served during World War II.
“My aunt claims, she said, ‘Augusta sent more young men percent-wise than any community in America,’” Dave Manix said.
Portraits of Manix’s father and uncle hang on that wall. After walking out of church one Sunday in December 1941, they were told to turn on their car radio. For hours they sat and listened to reports of an attack on Pearl Harbor. Then they went to war.
So did many of their friends and cousins, whose portraits Manix pointed out on the wall. Many returned after the war, and Manix, who grew up in Augusta, knew a few of them.
“We’re lucky these guys all came home,” he said.
But not everyone on the wall was so lucky.
Robert “Bob” Bohler, a submariner, was lost at sea and is still missing.
William “Laddie” Bernier, a bombardier, died when his B-24D Liberator was shot down over the Madang Province, New Guinea. Bernier’s remains were lost until 2001, when a U.S. team recovered them. Recently, Bernier’s remains were identified by the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command in Honolulu, Hawaii.
On Friday, after more than 70 years, Bernier returned home.
Bernier’s grandfather, Oliver Louis Bernier, was hired to drive an oxen train west in the 1860s, according to “In the Shadow of the Rockies: A history of the Augusta area.” He landed in Virginia City in 1865, then followed the gold to Helena. Oliver married, entered the cattle business, prospered, then moved north onto 2,000 acres not far from Augusta.
He had a son, Walter E. Bernier, who inherited his dad’s place. Walter had a son with his wife, Louise, and named him Fred. A year and a half later, William Dan Bernier was born. The story goes that Fred couldn’t pronounce William Dan, so he simply called his little brother “Laddie.”
Both boys graduated from Augusta High School. Then Laddie Bernier attended college in Bozeman for a few years.
Sandi Jones, Bernier’s neice, never met her uncle. But from what she heard, he probably enjoyed college.
“He was tall and good lookin’, and he liked the girls,” Jones said.
Jones said her uncle enlisted in the military on Dec. 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in Seattle. Jones doesn’t know how Bernier got there, but she assumed he packed a bag and hopped on a train.
“He must have felt serious about it,” Jones said her grandfather used to say about Bernier’s enlistment.
According to Jones, Bernier was between six feet and six feet-two inches in height. He wanted to be a pilot, but he was too tall. Instead Bernier was charged with sitting in the nose of the B-24, below the pilot, sighting where to drop the bombs.
“His aircraft was shot down on April 10, 1944, near Hansa Bay, Papua New Guinea. Bernier was initially reporting missing, but was later presumed killed in the crash. At the end of the war his remains were determined unrecoverable and he was reported killed in action to his family,” a media release from the Montana National Guard said.
Bernier’s mom, Louise, never believed that he was really dead. Jones said she wouldn’t talk about it, except to occasionally say he would come home. That one day, he would return.
This July, Jones received a call from military officials to notify her that her uncle’s remains had been identified.
She decided to have them buried in Augusta.
Army Lt. Timothy Smith is stationed in Honolulu, near the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. For soldiers there, it’s part of their duty to occasionally accompany identified remains home. When a release went out that Bernier’s remains were identified, Smith volunteered to fly with them. For the first time, he was chosen.
“It was an opportunity to give back to a soldier who gave his life to this country,” Smith said.
Smith flew with Bernier to Billings. From there, he drove with Bernier to Augusta.
Smith was with Bernier when they drove into Augusta toward the cemetery and past Dru Genger, a high school senior who was waving American flags with more than 50 other students from Augusta Public Schools.
“It’s a big deal,” Genger said about Bernier’s return. “This guy risked his life for us, for future generations, for freedom. I feel like this is a little thing I can do to show my gratitude.”
The procession escorting Bernier pulled into Augusta Cemetery, where dozens of people waited to pay their respects.
Pallbearers carried Bernier from the hearse, his coffin draped with the American flag.
After setting Bernier down, the pallbearers lifted the flag and held it taut over Bernier’s coffin.
There they held it as National Guard Chaplain Kenneth DuVall read from Psalm 118 and John 14, the latter of which speaks of the place waiting in heaven.
“I think that’s comforting for us to know there’s a place for everyone in heaven,” DuVall said.
The pallbearers held the flag taut as masons read respects to their fellow mason, as an honor guard fired a 21-gun salute and as trumpets played taps.
Then they folded the flag, which was passed to Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, Adjutant General for Montana. Quinn presented the flag to Jones.
For Bernier’s family, Quinn said the day was about him finally coming home. For him, from the soldier’s perspective, the day was about the commitment the military makes to never leave a man behind. He said that more than 50 Montanans are still unaccounted for after they went missing in action.
After the service, Chaplain DuVall told Jones, “It’s a simple service, and I hope it brought you comfort.”
“You don’t know how much comfort this brought me,” she replied.
Jones met family members at the funeral whom she’s never seen before -- including Bernier’s namesake, a great nephew named William Laddie Bernier.
When she looks back on the ceremony, Bernier said, she’ll remember all the people who came to show their respects.
“It really does show that some people remember and appreciate,” she said.
She was blown away by the support. All of it was for her uncle, for “Laddie.” And she hopes he’s happy with it all, smiling down from above.
Jones is happy. Happy that the uncle she never knew is finally home.
“I can say, ‘Yep Grandma, I did bring him home,” Jones said.
“He’s no longer lost. He’s found, and he’s safe.”