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1st. Lt. William Bernier

After more than 70 years, the remains of a World War II prisoner of war will be returned to his home in Augusta next week.

The remains of Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William D. Bernier were uncovered by a U.S. team in 2001 and were recently positively identified using circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, a press release from the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office said.

"On April 10, 1944, Bernier, along with 11 other B-24D Liberator crew members took off from Texter Strip, Nazdab Air Field, New Guinea, on a mission to attack an anti-aircraft site at Hansa Bay," the release said.

"The aircraft was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire over the Madang Province, New Guinea," the release said. "Four of the crewmen were able to parachute from the aircraft, but were reported to have died in captivity."

Bernier's remains, along with those of six others, were recently identified and will return to his hometown to be buried by his family on Sept. 19.

His niece, Sandra Jones, said she has been working with the U.S. Military for years to determine if the remains uncovered more than a decade ago belonged to her father's brother.

When she received a call from Fort Knox in July, she assumed it was their annual update to ensure that she was still the contact person should they identify the remains. Much to her shock, they had.

"This year, it was 'We have identified the remains and we would like to come talk to you about it,'" Jones said. "It's totally awesome.

"There's been a lot of people in the family who have kind of wondered what ever happened to him," she said. "It's always been a little question mark out there."

She said she had to make "9 million decisions" once she found out the remains were positively identified as Bernier's but that the most important one was where to bury him. Jones said she had the option of burying him at Arlington National Cemetery, but decided to bring him home to Montana instead.

"I chose where he was born," she said. "That's where his parents are buried. They have a military section there."

She said family members have been calling non-stop to inquire about the news, some of whom she's never even met.

"I've been getting calls every three or four days," Jones said. "It's a whole family thing and it's amazing how it brings people together that don't even know each other.

"We can be proud of him all over again," she said. "He died so we can do some of the things that we do that weren't available back then.

"It's closure," she said. "We are so glad that they're bringing him home."

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Julie Baughman can be reached at 447-4086 or julie.baughman@helenair.com.

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