Shelley Hamilton Atkins never had the chance to meet her uncle, Sgt. Vernon Hamilton. Nevertheless, Atkins felt like she knew her missing uncle as well as any of her other living relatives.
“My grandmother, Dorothy Hamilton, loved to tell stories about Vern,” Atkins recalls. “I heard so many great things about him. My grandmother felt those stories helped to keep him alive. And she never gave up hope that one day he would come home. He came back in a big way and now we finally have an opportunity to tell his story.”
Atkins was one several hundred people who packed the Ringgold Middle School auditorium Wednesday evening to view the premier of “Homecoming: Sgt. Hamilton’s Long Journey” – a 30-minute documentary produced by WQED, a public broadcasting station based in Pittsburgh.
The documentary chronicles the story of Hamilton, a 19-year-old Army Air gunner mechanic who was lost after his A-26 light bomber aircraft was shot down over Dülmen, Germany on March 21, 1945. The remains of Hamilton, Sgt. John Kalausich and 2nd Lt. Lynn Hadfield were recovered three years ago and positively identified in 2018. Hamilton’s body was returned to the United States last summer for a funeral and burial in Monongahela.
WQED executive producer David Solomon, who moderated a panel discussing following the screening of the documentary, said the film preserves the memory of one of the troops who helped liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.
“If it wasn’t for History Flight and so many other people, Vern would have become a foggy memory in the minds of a few people, then gone with the next generation,” said Solomon, a Monongahela native and Ringgold 1972 graduate, who worked with videographer Paul Ruggieri to produce the documentary. “Now that Sgt. Hamilton’s story has been captured in a documentary, we are hoping he will be around for a really long time.”
Initial attempts to locate the A-26 plane and the bodies of Hamilton, Kalausich and Hadfield were futile, and the remains of the crew were declared nonrecoverable in 1951. Then in June 2016, Adolph Hagedorn, a German researcher, contacted the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) after he found a crash site that was possibly linked to Hamilton’s plane.
Justin LeHew, chief operating officer of History Flight, a private nonprofit dedicated to finding missing U.S. service members, said the team tasked with recovering the remains was racing against the clock.
“DPAA said the remains had to be excavated in 30 to 60 days because the landowner was preparing to build a barn over the site where the plane had crashed,” said LeHew. “Once the barn went up, it would be impossible to recover the artifacts. The problem was that DPAA didn’t have a team ready to do the job. That’s where History Flight came in. Together with a team of forensic anthropologists, geophysicists, historians and other volunteers, we worked seven days a week over a month to recover pieces of the plane and fragments of bone and teeth.”
The team also recovered Hamilton’s Monongahela High School class ring, as well as dog tags belonging to Kalausich and Hadfield.
Once excavation was completed, the remains were sent to DPAA’s forensic laboratory in Omaha, Neb. Dr. Carrie Brown, forensic anthropologist and director of the USS Oklahoma Project, said all remains were treated with the utmost respect.
“A military escort accompanied the flag-draped transfer cases from the airport to the laboratory. We also didn’t allow videotaping of the soldiers’ remains,” said Brown, who also was instrumental in identifying the remains of 200 previously unknown crewmen from the USS Oklahoma.
Positive identification of Hamilton and the other crewmen was completed by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and DPAA in 2018.
During the event, Ringgold Superintendent Megan Marie Van Fossan presented an honorary high school diploma to Atkins, who accepted the certificate on behalf of her uncle. Hamilton did not finish high school because he enlisted in the Army Air Corps at the age of 17.
In addition, state Rep. Bud Cook (R-49) and Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi presented Hamilton’s family with certificates of appreciation. State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-46) also sent a statement to honor Hamilton.
Atkins thanked the city of Monongahela for honoring her uncle and keeping his memory alive.
“It is awesome to see such an outpouring of gratitude,” she said. “Most of these people didn’t know my uncle, yet they were out on the sidewalks waving flags and wiping tears from their eyes. My uncle would have been so humbled to witness all of this.”
“Homecoming: Sgt. Hamilton’s Long Journey, which aired Thursday on WQED, can be viewed at www.wqed.org/homecoming.