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Remains of fallen Florida aviator make it home after 70 years

Published Jan. 29, 2015

Four generations of a family gathered on the tarmac of Tampa International Airport Wednesday to welcome home the remains of a long-lost relative. Nearly 70 years after being shot down over Germany during World War II, U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. James F. Gatlin of Jacksonville was coming home.

"We've been waiting for this to happen," said Janda Fussell, 45, of Lithia, granddaughter of Gatlin's oldest surviving first cousin, Wilma Gatlin Shiver, 89. Fussell never met Gatlin, obviously, but when she read about him and his death, she said she wept.

"Even though we didn't know him, we've sort of invested ourselves in him. Especially since he was such a hero."

Gatlin was co-piloting a B-26C Marauder on Dec. 23, 1944, when German fighters intercepted the plane on its way back from a bombing mission and shot it. The plane caught fire and crashed near Ahrweiler, a west-German town, south of Cologne and west of Frankfurt, killing Gatlin. He was 25.

The family learned that after the crash, townspeople pulled Gatlin's body and two others from the wreckage and buried them in unmarked graves.

In 1999, two Germans gave the U.S. military parts of Gatlin's plane and other artifacts, initiating what became a 14-year search by military investigators who excavated the site. In 2012, Fussell said, they found a mandible — a jaw bone. Two years later, scientists matched the bone's DNA to that of another of Gatlin's first cousins. On Wednesday, those remains were returned to the family.

Fussell is related to Gatlin through his father, but the experience has now connected her family with Gatlin's maternal line, including Connie Howard, 84, the first cousin who supplied the DNA sample and had exchanged letters with Gatlin during the war.

She turned 14 the day Gatlin was shot down.

The two sides had been in contact since Gatlin's remains were identified and stood together on the taxiway Wednesday. Howard flew in from Wyoming, and other relatives traveled from California and Virginia to accept Gatlin's remains.

On Friday, the pilot will be laid to rest in Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

About 70 missing service members are accounted for every year, said Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, spokeswoman for the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.

"The Department of Defense has this mission as a top priority," she said. "There is no greater sacrifice a service member can make than give his life for his country."

While the family has earned some closure, there are still unanswered questions. Those unmarked graves haven't been found. If they are, the family will have the choice of exhuming his remains from Bushnell and burying everything together, or burying his remains in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Until then, Gatlin will reside in the United States and Germany.

"He's kind of internationally buried," Fussell said.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 226-3446 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15