The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Once buried in another man’s grave, a WWII soldier’s body is finally coming home

A Virginia man was killed in a Japanese air raid in 1945. Seventy-seven years later, his remains have been identified.

Army Air Forces Pfc. Edward H. Benson Jr., of Roanoke, Va., whose remains were recently identified 77 years after he was killed on Biak during a Japanese air raid in 1945. (Courtesy of Marine Corps. Col. James H. Benson, Ret)
5 min

On July 1, 1948, the body of a man the Army identified as Sgt. Leonard J. Moynihan was buried in St. Mary’s cemetery, in South Glens Falls, N.Y., after funeral services in his hometown church.

Moynihan had been killed during a Japanese air raid on the island of Biak in the South Pacific in 1945, and the Army was just now sending him home. Or so it believed.

But the body buried that day in the small Hudson River town 50 miles north of Albany was not that of Moynihan. Instead, the Defense Department revealed this month, it belonged to Army Air Forces Pfc. Edward H. Benson Jr., of Roanoke, Va.

The mistake was detailed when the Pentagon announced March 10 that it had finally identified Benson’s remains, 77 years after his death.

Benson, who was 22 when he was killed on March 22, 1945, is scheduled to be reburied May 14, near his parents and siblings in a Roanoke cemetery.

80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor brings end to victim-identification program

He was in Moynihan’s grave for three years before the Army realized the mistake, removed him and buried the real Moynihan there in 1951. Benson’s body was taken to a military cemetery in the Philippines, where it lay unidentified for 71 years.

His case illustrates the chaos in the aftermath of World War II as the government, working with limited technology, tried to recover, identify and bury the war’s dead — a process that continues today with more sophisticated tools.

Benson and Moynihan were both stationed near an airstrip just off the beach on Biak, now part of Indonesia.

Biak had been seized from the Japanese in 1944. But a surprise nighttime raid on the airstrip killed Benson, Moynihan and more than 38 others, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The Japanese planes bombed and strafed enlisted men’s tents, the mess hall, warehouses and the air traffic control center. U.S. planes were destroyed.

The dead from the raid were initially buried on Biak. After the war, they were exhumed and reburied in a large cemetery 900 miles away in New Guinea.

It’s not clear how Benson’s body became identified as Moynihan’s, according to a recent DPAA report on the case that sifted through a tangle of old records.

But in April 1951, questions were raised about the identification, the report says.

A mix-up was suspected, and in September 1951, an unidentified soldier buried in the New Guinea cemetery was exhumed and examined. Using dental records, experts realized that this was Moynihan.

In November 1951, an Army official traveled to Glens Falls with the real body of Moynihan, according to the DPAA and the Binghamton Press. Benson’s body was exhumed and taken away by the official, the newspaper reported.

Benson’s unidentified remains were shipped to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, where other U.S. soldiers were buried. He was declared “nonrecoverable.”

After World War II, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers mutinied — and won

In 2003, Benson’s son, retired Marine Corps Col. James H. Benson of Little River, S.C., began a series of inquiries with the Defense Department about the possibility of accounting for his father.

“I started tracing him,” he said in an telephone interview. “It was off and on for ... years.”

James Benson was 2 when his father was killed. “I never knew him,” he said. "I wanted to know more about him: how he got killed, why can’t we get him home. He was an unknown.”

Edward Benson was known as “Pete,” his son said. According to his draft registration card, he was of modest stature: 5-foot-6 and about 130 pounds. He worked in a large Norfolk and Western Railway yard in Roanoke.

The younger Benson said his father came home to visit at least once. “We have pictures of him holding me when I was 2 years old,” he said.

“I just remember the talk, and all the good things,” he said. “He had three sisters and his mother. His father died before he went overseas. They raved about Pete: Everything Pete did was good; Pete was a good boy.”

Despite the passage of so much time, he praised the DPAA and the Army.

“When you consider that our government tracks down soldiers that have been dead for 77 years, there are a lot of good things to be said,” Benson said. “They did a great job.”

Through the early 2000s, James Benson conducted research and continued to ask the Defense Department to look into the possibility that the body in Manila that had been in Moynihan’s grave might be his father’s, according to the DPAA report.

That body was the only one of the three unknowns from the Biak raid that was still unidentified. And Benson was the only soldier from the raid whose body had never been officially located.

But the DPAA’s predecessor agency was reluctant to do exhumations to investigate cases, the report said. Plus, it did not agree with James Benson’s theory that the body in Manila might be his father’s. The quest stalled.

Lost grave markers surface from a distant World War II battlefield

With the creation of the DPAA in 2015, exhumation policy changed, with the aim of identifying more missing or unidentified service members.

The Benson family submitted DNA samples, and in January 2020, the body in Manila was exhumed and sent to a government laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii for analysis.

Last month, James Benson got a call from an Army official. “Jim, I got great news,” he said the caller told him. “They’ve identified your father.”

“That caused a big gulp,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. ... It was such shock after all these years.”

The DPAA said dental and anthropological analysis, circumstantial evidence and DNA were used to make the identification.

“Pete” Benson is to be buried in the family plot in Roanoke’s Evergreen cemetery, his skeletal remains in full Army uniform, Benson said. “There are eight spaces there, and one left for him,” he said.