Long-missing Valdosta soldier to be buried

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Jul. 22—VALDOSTA — A World War II soldier from Valdosta listed as missing and presumed dead for almost eight decades will finally be laid to rest close to home.

Graveside services will be held for Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. William O. Wood at 2 p.m., Aug. 1, at the Tallahassee National Cemetery, according to a statement from the U.S. Army Human Resources Command. Bevis Funeral Home of Tallahassee is in charge of arrangements.

The Tallahassee cemetery is the closest military burial ground to Valdosta.

The burial will come 79 years to the day after the B-24D Liberator he was flying in as a tailgunner crashed in Romania during Operation Tidal Wave, a major bombing raid against oil fields and refineries around Ploesti, north of Bucharest.

Wood's remains were not identified following the war. Unidentified remains were buried as "unknowns" in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

His honors included the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.

Wood was memorialized on the Tablets of the Unknown, which lists 1,409 names of missing servicemen, at the Florence American Cemetery in Italy. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for, according to the Army.

HIS FAMILY

His oldest surviving relative, 82-year-old nephew Fred Barton of Chiefland, Fla., said it was a shock when the phone rang and a staff sergeant told him his uncle had been identified.

"I was surprised to find out I was the oldest survivor," he said.

Because Barton was only 3 years old when his uncle was listed as missing in action, he doesn't have any memories of Wood. What little he knew about the man was passed down in scraps and pieces of stories in the family.

Barton's wife, Joan, said the Army had collected DNA samples from her husband's mother and sister — both now deceased — but no one expected anything to come of it.

Wood's remains were identified using circumstantial evidence and various forms of DNA analysis, the Army statement said.

Joan Barton had nothing but praise for the military department that handles recovery and identification of remains.

"The real story is what the Army is doing about looking for missing service members," she said. "They don't give up on them."

WHO WAS WILLIAM O. WOOD?

Born in Tifton April 19, 1919, Wood was the son of Alonzo and Gertrude Wood.

In 1940, he was 22 and living in Valdosta with his father, mother, brother Joseph and five sisters — Louise, Alice, Ernestine, Virginia and Shirley, census data shows. When he registered for the draft that year, he was working for Manly Construction Company, his draft records show.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces — the predecessor to the modern Air Force — and was a tailgunner assigned to the 93rd Bomber Group, 328th Bomber Squadron.

On Aug. 1, 1943, Wood's B-24D Liberator, Hell's Wench, was part of Operation Tidal Wave, the largest bombing mission against the oil fields and refineries at Plolesti, north of Bucharest, Romania, according to the American Air Museum in Britain. The Romanian oil fields were a vital source of energy for Germany's Third Reich and a major target for the Allied powers; altogether, 53 aircraft and 660 air crewmen were lost in Tidal Wave.

A disastrous wrong turn that led many of the bombers away from Ploesti broke up the attacking bombers' formation.

Three miles from the target, while attacking other sites they could find, Hell's Wench was damaged by enemy ground fire, setting the entire plane ablaze; nonetheless, the crew managed to release their bombs on the target. They tried to gain altitude so the crew could bail out but the fire became so intense that Hell's Wench crashed, killing everyone on board, according to the American Air Museum.

In the War Department's 1946 Honor List of Dead and Missing, Wood is listed as "FOD" — shorthand for "finding of death," meaning he was declared dead in the absence of a recovered body.

AT THE GRAVESIDE

Fred Barton said he and his wife plan to attend the services in Tallahassee, along with their children and Fred's younger brother, Charles, who also lives in Florida.

Wood's medals will be presented to Barton, his wife said.

"Somebody that we'd heard about has now really become a family member," she said. "He was a hero; we are proud of him."

Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.