Seventy years after his plane went down in Belgium, a United States airman will be given a full military funeral in Trail’s Mountain View Cemetery on Monday.
A little bit of luck, along with lots of hard work and dedication, have lead to the return of the remains of the Hunconscious, a World War II bomber, and its six-man crew.
One of those crew members, bomb toggler Eric Mitchell Honeyman was last heard of on Dec. 23, 1944, but now, his remains are being returned to his family, over 70 years later.
At 2 p.m. on Monday, the Honeyman family will be burying Eric’s remains in the Mountain View Cemetery, with a full military funeral and 21-gun salute.
“It is just wonderful,” said Trail resident Marnie Matthews (nee Honeyman). “All of our lives, we never knew what happened to him.”
The Hunconscious, a B-26 Marauder, with Eric at the ready to drop one of the 1000-pound bombs it was carrying, was a member of the 599th Bombardment Squadron in a group called the Bridge Busters. During one of the coldest winters Belgium and France had seen at the time, most of the planes were grounded while Hitler and his armies launched an offensive on Ardennes, later named The Battle of the Bulge.
The battle was at its turning point when Eric’s plane and another, Bank Nite Betty, took off into the clouds with the mission to destroy a vital rail bridge in Eller, Germany. Neither plane made it back to base and within 48 hours, the Army had issued a Missing in Action (MIA) declaration for both planes and crews. For over 60 years, their resting place was unknown.
Six years ago, a hiker named Helmut Deitrichs found a small fragment of Eric’s flying jacket while up in the Belgian mountains and he called his friend Danny Keay, a U.S. Army intelligence professional who searches for plane crash sites as a hobby. The fragment survived in harsh mountain weather with Eric’s army identification number and initials still visible. Finding the scrap of fabric began a years-long process of excavation and identification.
“Through a Freedom of Information request, Danny got the notification that the number corresponded with Eric’s service number,” said Scott Honeyman, a cousin of Eric and the oldest living relative of the lost bomber. “They reported that information to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and they scheduled a search.”
History Flight, a group of veterans who also look for missing planes, started an excavation on the machine itself, but once they found human remains around the site in Belgium, JPAC took over. The recovery operation took two summers, and when all was said and done, the six crew members on the Hunconscious were all identified and, where possible, returned to their families.
“My brothers and I gave DNA and a few years later they were able to match it,” said Scott from his home in Vancouver. “Once they had the expectation that they might find human remains, they hired a genealogist to track us down.
“They excavated a huge amount of space and found human remains up to 900 metres away from the impact crater. The theory is that as the plane went down, the four 1,000 lb bombs in the plane exploded which would have scattered remains over a wide area.
“The other thing that kind of amazed me, is they brought in cadaver dogs, and after 70 years, these dogs were still able to find traces of human remains.”
Eric’s plane was one of 10 that were shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on that day in The Battle of the Bulge. At the time, there were conflicting reports as to what had happened to the Hunconscious and its crew.
“The Americans spent a lot of time in the late ‘40s looking and interviewing people in the area to try and find the lost planes,” said Scott. “Some witnesses said they saw parachutes, and others said they didn’t. Some said it had gone straight down, but official reports say it staggered along to where it came to a stop in Belgium, which is where it was found.”
Scott and his cousin, Marnie Matthews, both marvelled at the dedication it took for the wreck to be found and they appreciated the hard work the U.S. Army puts into identifying their lost soldiers.
“It is pretty incredible after all this time,” said Scott.
“Incredible that first, people were still looking, and second, that through a series of events, they actually found and identified all the crew. We are very grateful to the Americans and we are very happy to see a resolution and to bring him back to the presence of his family.”
Matthews never met Eric – he died almost a decade before she was born – but is appreciative of the technology that allowed for the identification of the remains, not just for her family, but for the families of the other five men who went down with Eric.
“It is so modern,” said Matthews. “This was 70 years ago he went down, and even 20 years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. They would have just said, ‘OK, this is the plane, and we know who was on it from the records.’”
Although the lost soldier was born in Nanaimo, grew up in California and was a member of the U.S. Army, when the family was asked where they wanted Eric’s remains to stay, Trail seemed like the logical choice.
“We thought that since our grandparents were buried here (it would be a good place),” she said. “Eric’s parents, Bella and Eddy, their bodies were donated to science so there isn’t a grave. There is nowhere for him to go be with his parents, so why not bring him home with his family? It is just really special and meaningful.”
Many members of the Honeyman family live in different places in B.C., from Kimberley to Vancouver to Trail. Matthews says Honeymans are coming from all over to be here when their long lost relative is laid in his final resting place, giving the family the possibility for a reunion as well.
“We have a big extended family,” she said. “This is going to be such an honour and a chance for all of us to be together. People are coming from all over. It is about reconnecting for us. This is such an opportunity to have a Honeyman reunion and honour one of us, who as a young man, went off and I am sure was hoping to come home.”
On June 20, Eric’s remains will be escorted from the DNA testing facility in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii to Castlegar airport, where they will be met with a formal receiving line and ceremony before being interred on Monday afternoon.
Following the Mountain View Cemetery military ceremony, the Honeymans will be gathering at Warfield Community Hall for a reception and reunion.
The Trail burial and ceremony isn’t the only event set to honour Eric and his sacrifice in The Battle of the Bulge.
In August, there is going to be a funeral for the crew of the Hunconscious at the Army’s military burial grounds – Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Three Honeyman cousins will be making their way to Arlington for the ceremony, representing the Honeymans and honouring Eric.