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Schaumburg man hoping to bring fallen WWII veterans home
By Eric Peterson | Daily Herald Staff

Schaumburg businessman John Rippinger has recently returned from an expedition to find shot-down American planes from World War II in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Papua new guinea: John Rippinger recently returned from an expedition there to find shot-down American planes from World War II in the jungle.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

This is an aerial view of the New Guinea jungle where Schaumburg businessman John Rippinger and his group searched for downed American aircraft from World War II.

 

Courtesy John Rippinger

Schaumburg businessman John Rippinger has recently returned from an expedition to find shot-down American planes from World War II in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

 

Courtesy John Rippinger

John Rippinger stands beside the wreckage of a downed World War II aircraft in the Papua New Guinea jungle.

 

Courtesy John Rippinger

An American plane from World War II rests in a clearing in a Papua New Guinea jungle.

 

Courtesy John Rippinger

Rippinger recovered this dog tag in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

 

Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Former Des Plaines resident Jim Walsh recently returned from an expedition to find shot-down American planes from World War II in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. The team and natives pause to pray over remains.

 

COURTESY JIM WALSH

Walsh views items at a crash site.

 

COURTESY JIM WALSH

Former Des Plaines resident Jim Walsh, right, recently returned from an expedition to find shot-down American planes from World War II in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

 

COURTESY JIM WALSH

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Published: 7/25/2010 12:02 AM | Updated: 7/25/2010 12:13 AM

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Even as the last American survivors of World War II are reaching the sunset of their lives, the search for their fallen, missing brethren is as intensive as ever.

Schaumburg businessman and formation flight team pilot John Rippinger recently returned from his third expedition with Minnesota-based MIA Hunters to find the remains of American fighter planes and their pilots shot down by the Japanese in the jungles of Papua New Guinea more than 65 years ago.

Also there on his first such mission was former Des Plaines resident and retired Daily Herald vice president of advertising Jim Walsh, now of Lake Geneva, Wis.

Both are quick to admit they probably wouldn't be among the first choices for such a physically strenuous assignment: Rippinger is 63, Walsh is 72.

But it's been hardy people at or above retirement age who've been the most common participants on the missions because of their expense. The self-funded May expeditions cost about $11,000 per person.

Even Bryan Moon, the founder and director of MIA Hunters, is now 82.

Walsh said he's kept in good shape and was well forewarned, but the combination of heat and humidity in the jungle was a factor he could never have completely prepared for.

"A couple days got to be very tiring," Walsh said. "And you'd be soaking wet before you even left camp."

In fact, a 70-year-old member of his particular group went home early after one morning he forgot to bring water and didn't ask to borrow anyone else's. He fainted from heat exhaustion, and was delirious as his teammates brought him back to camp.

But Rippinger said all who sign up for the expeditions believe in the value of what they're accomplishing at such a high cost.

Their task is basically to interview natives and hire local scouts to lead them to any of the hundreds of wrecked planes that lie in the jungle. There they record the precise coordinates and any other identifying marks they can find on the planes for a team from the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to follow up at some future date.

"They would like to retrieve the retrievable bodies without putting anyone else at risk," Rippinger said.

There are several factors behind why the last few years have been the busiest time in the search for MIAs in Papua New Guinea. First of all, the country really opened up to outsiders only about a decade ago. And the use of new technology, such as satellite phones, allows exploration of the jungle to be a little more thorough than before.

But most importantly, these are the final years in which native eyewitnesses to the battles and crashes are still alive to be interviewed - usually through younger translators, Rippinger said.

In the four years since his last expedition, native scouts have found 92 more crash sites for MIA Hunters to document. But there are believed to still be 375 undiscovered wrecks in the jungle, Rippinger said.

The documentation of each crash site ends with a prayer for the fallen crew members who've at last been found, as well as for the MIA hunters' own safe return.

In addition to the scouts themselves, the expedition members usually hire additional local help to serve as protection - and arrange as much in advance as possible to compensate landowners for the crossing of their land.

"Remember, they're a generation and a half away from being headhunters, so they have different ways of settling disputes," Rippinger said.

Explaining to some landowners the reason for their visit often isn't easy. While many local residents are familiar with the large pieces of rusted metal near their homes, they don't even have a word in their language for airplane.

One aid to the search for World War II planes in Papua New Guinea compared to the search for wreckage in the more recent Vietnam War is that the nonacidic, volcanic-ash soil in New Guinea has proved less corrosive to the wreckage.

And the increased sophistication of the native scout industry since Rippinger's last expedition has allowed the MIA searchers to cover more ground on each visit.

In May, from his team's base in the town of Popondetta, Rippinger traveled from wreck to wreck by four-wheel drive more often than on his previous two trips. The longest trek away from the vehicles this time lasted about two hours, while four years ago he had to walk for two days just to see one plane.

Walsh's team covered differed territory from its base in the town of Lae.

Given the amount of time that's passed since the planes crashed, the military doesn't feel under a strict deadline to follow up on the wreck discoveries. There are many factors to be taken into account, including the average $1.2 million recovery cost per plane, Rippinger said.

It may also be a case of waiting for the world of today to become a little more politically stable before investing so much in recovery of the past, he added.

In any case, the MIAs' widows and siblings - who are now in their late 80s or early 90s themselves - are less likely to see any burials of remains on U.S. soil than are their nephews and nieces.

But some positive identifications of remains have been made, due again to better technology, Rippinger said. At least one set of bones was matched to the DNA on an envelope their owner had licked more than half a century earlier.

As to whether they'll ever return, Rippinger and Walsh have different degrees of certainty.

"The first one was a novelty," Walsh said. "I'm not afraid of an adventure, and it was an adventure. But more than likely, I won't go back."

"I think we've done a good job for now," was Rippinger's more open-minded reply. "In our group, I think we made the best of it. It's for the adventurer; it's really not for the faint of heart."