TAMPA — Seven decades after he was shot down during World War II, Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. John Donald Mumford came home Thursday night.
A flag-draped coffin holding his remains was carried out of the cargo hold of Southwest Airlines Flight 4599 from Chicago shortly after 8 p.m.
Standing on the tarmac on the chilly March night at Tampa International Airport, Mumford's family watched the dignified transfer ceremony.
Ronald Woolums, an Air Force veteran, saluted. His brother, Lynn Woolums, held his right hand over his heart
Mumford was their uncle.
"I just realized we have a family war hero," said Lynn Woolums of St. Petersburg. "He paid the ultimate price for our freedom."
"This is very impressive," Ronald Woolums, also of St. Petersburg said of the ceremony. "He is finally home."
Mumford was born in upstate New York and eventually moved with his family to 3490 Queensboro Lane in St. Petersburg.
The Woolums brothers know very little else about their uncle, who, according to military records, grew to be nearly 6 feet tall and 150 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes. So they were both amazed and grateful to read the details compiled by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in an 80-page, plastic-bound report about the incident and the search for his remains.
Mumford enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and went on to fly a P-51 Mustang fighter.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, as the allies were launching the invasion of Normandy, Mumford, 22, was making what turned out to be his final flight. It was to escort B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers in an attack on a German airfield.
The mission was successful, destroying buildings, ramps and aircraft. But afterward, he was pounced on by German fighters and shot down over what is now Ukraine.
For years, because of fighting during 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. Over the years, teams visited the crash site, interviewing witnesses and examining the location where Mumford crashed.
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.
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. The remains were sent back to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where they were eventually identified as Mumford's.
It was those remains that were returned to Tampa on Thursday.
A funeral service for Mumford will be held at 10:45 a.m. March 23 at Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home, 7820 38th Ave. N in St. Petersburg. Interment of his cremains will follow at the Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.