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Remains of missing St. Petersburg World War II fighter pilot returning Thursday night

On the morning of June 6, 1944, as history was being made off the coast of Normandy, Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. John Donald Mumford was flying his P-51 Mustang fighter through the skies over Romania. He was escorting a squadron of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers to an air raid on a German airfield.

The mission was successful. But after the raid, German ground control radioed to its fighters: "Contact the enemy. Close in on the enemy."

In minutes, Mumford, 22, of St. Petersburg found himself attacked by 10 German fighters. He was never seen alive again.

For years, Mumford was the subject of family stories — known through fading photos and failing memories as a dashing young man with a desire to fly. But it had been years since his nephews, Ronald and Lynn Woolums, had even thought about their uncle, who died before they were born.

Until the phone call in January that changed everything.

It was a woman from the U.S. Department of Defense. She was calling to tell the Woolums that after an often intense 10-year search, their uncle's remains had been found in a field in what is now Ukraine.

It never occurred to the brothers that anyone was looking for their uncle, let alone that they would actually find him after so many decades. "I thought it was a scam," said Lynn Woolums, 67, who like his brother still lives in St. Petersburg. "I was like, 'Really?' It was too good to be true."

But it was true. And thanks to the Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency, or DPAA, a unit of the military dedicated to finding missing troops, Ronald and Lynn Woolums are preparing for an unexpected visitor.

Mumford's remains are scheduled to arrive Thursday night at Tampa International Airport.

Now the brothers' heads are filled with thoughts of their uncle and his last frantic moments zooming through the skies of Eastern Europe, chased by machine-gun blasting Nazi warplanes.

"This is rather overwhelming," said Lynn Woolums, a retired advertising agency owner.

"This is unbelievable, really," said Ronald Woolums, 68, a retired teacher.

• • •

John Mumford was born on Oct. 15, 1921, in upstate New York to Anson Sr. and Mildred Mumford.

The family eventually moved to 3490 Queensboro Lane in St. Petersburg, and Mumford and his father often went deer hunting, said Lynn Woolums.

The oldest photo of Mumford, laid out on Lynn Woolums' kitchen table, is prophetic.

Taken in February 1930, it shows Mumford, 9, riding a tricycle shaped like a biplane, the aircraft of the day.

"Looks like he always wanted to fly," Lynn Woolums said. "I remember hearing that he was kind of dashing. That he was a dynamic individual."

The Woolums brothers know very little else about their uncle, who grew to be nearly 6 feet tall and 150 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes, according to military records. So they were both amazed and grateful to read the details compiled by the DPAA in an 80-page, plastic-bound report about the incident and the search for his remains.

• • •

On Jan. 6, 1942, Mumford enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was initially trained to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter but switched over to the new P-51C Mustang by the time he arrived in Ukraine with the rest of the 325th Fighter Group.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, as the allies were launching the invasion of Normandy, Mumford was making his final flight.

After the successful bombing run, German radio traffic became confused, as several aircraft radioed over each other. For the next 10 chaotic minutes, several German Focke-Wulf FW-190s, Messerchmitt Me-109s and Junkers JU-88s fighters attacked the formation. Mumford's unit counterattacked.

He was pounced on by German fighters.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the villagers of Traianu, Romania (now Novi Troyany, Ukraine), were working their corn fields. Two aircraft appeared overhead pursued by five or six German planes. One of the American aircraft caught fire and crashed in a field.

Villagers found the body of the pilot near the wreckage, but they were told by the Soviet Cossack Cavalry to leave the body where it lay. The International Red Corps later confirmed that Mumford was in the aircraft that crashed.

At first, Munford's parents were told that their son was missing in action. A few months later, they were told he was killed.

• • •

A few years later, the Woolums brothers were born, first Ronald then Lynn. Though their mother still grieved, life went on. The Woolums grew up building model airplanes, especially World War II bombers and fighters like the P-51 their uncle flew.

Ronald Woolums enlisted in the Air Force and later became a teacher while his brother went into advertising. They got married, had kids and careers. Their parents died and the brothers retired, keeping busy playing in a band. Ron plays drums while his brother plays the bass.

There was little time to ponder the fate of 2nd Lt. John Mumford.

But unbeknownst to the Woolums, thousands of miles to the east, the DPAA had crews out searching for his remains.

For years, thanks to the fighting in World War II followed by the tensions of the Cold War, there wasn't much that could be done. But in 2007, the DPAA's predecessor organization got some new information about Mumford from the Ukrainian government.

In 2008, a representative visited the village of Novi Troyany and interviewed five witnesses to the crash. One showed the team a purported part of the aircraft that he possessed, which analysts later identified as the bolt to a U.S. M-2 .50 caliber machine gun. The witnesses showed the field where Mumford crashed.

In June 2010, a team of analysts visited Novi Troyany for a ground investigation at the site. The team interviewed another witness, who described his recollection of the incident and aftermath. The Department of Defense team swept the field with metal detectors, which revealed several small artifacts consistent with aircraft wreckage, some with stamps and manufacturing marks consistent with an American aircraft from the Second World War.

Based on the witness statements and aircraft wreckage, the team recommended that the Defense Department excavate the site to search for Mumford's remains. From July 16 through Aug. 5, 2016, a combined team from the DPAA and the Ukraine Armed Forces went looking. Twelve local farmers were hired to help. The Ukrainian team provided 24-hour security.

Investigators used standard archaeological techniques and eventually found a partial, broken skeleton that included parts of the cranium, ribs, vertebrae and leg and arm bones. They were sent back to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where they were eventually identified as Mumford.

• • •

The Woolums brothers say they were shocked and a little suspicious after the January phone call, but became accepting after a visit by personnel from the Army's Past Conflict Repatriations Branch who explained the recovery process.

"I had no idea they did that," said Lynn Woolums.

"Neither did I, but we are so incredibly grateful," said his brother of the unit congressionally mandated to identify the remains of 200 MIAs every year.

Thursday night, the hard work put in by people they never met to solve a mystery they knew little about will pay off for the brothers in the return of their uncle's remains. The remains will undergo a dignified transfer ceremony before heading to the Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg. No date has been set for a service or interment of the cremains, which will take place at the Bay Pines National Veterans Cemetery.

"I'm kind of anxious about it," Lynn Woolums said about the ceremony.

"Me too," said his brother. "I don't know how I'll react."

While the brothers say the return of their uncle will bring about a sense of closure, there's something deeper about what happened, they say.

"It is very important that everyone knows that there are people who are still looking for remains," Lynn Woolums said.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

Remains of missing St. Petersburg World War II fighter pilot returning Thursday night 03/15/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2017 5:59am]
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