THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A Marine pilot's long journey home

For over 60 years, they knew only that he was lost in battle. Then a Globe account reunited a family with its hero.

By Bella English
Globe Staff / January 25, 2009
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CHARLESTON, S.C. - The rain fell steadily from an opaque sky, but the Marines stood ramrod straight, eyes fixed ahead. In the historic graveyard, the Rev. Peter Lanzillotta gazed down at the urn. "You served your country with a full measure of your devotion. We shall salute you and say hail and farewell, good and noble Marine."

A military honor guard gave a crackling three-volley salute. A bugler played "Taps." As loved ones dabbed their tears, fighter jets performed a flyover at the Unitarian Church of Charleston's cemetery.

The dead Marine, buried with full military honors, wasn't a veteran from Iraq or Afghanistan. Sixty-five years after his single-seat F-4U Corsair was shot down by the Japanese on Jan. 20, 1944, Major Marion Ryan McCown Jr. came home to rest. Twenty-five years old when he went to war, and 27 when he died, he would have turned 92 this month.

A true son of Charleston, he had strawberry blond hair with a stubborn cowlick on the right side, a degree from Georgia Tech, and a fondness for Laurel and Hardy.

Before he left for the war, he had asked his gal to marry him. Instead she went to his funeral, and heard him eulogized by a sister who was 3 months old when he died and a nephew who hadn't been born. The extended family, some 30 members, descended upon Charleston from various parts of the country to mourn a man they knew only through fading letters and family lore.

McCown's surprise homecoming began last year, when a military team assigned to recover the remains of World War II MIAs located the cockpit of his plane along with bone fragments near Rabaul in Papua New Guinea. Military personnel told reporters from the Globe, who had accompanied the team, that McCown had no known descendants. He would probably be buried in a military cemetery. And that was the end of the story.

Almost.

The Globe report on the Pentagon's push to recover soldiers still missing from World War II was published in May. In September, Blair McKinney happened to mention to a friend that she was heading to a family party in Tryon, N.C. Somehow her Uncle Ryan's name came up. It was odd, since no one much talked about him anymore. "He was an enigma," said McKinney, 41. "He disappeared off the face of the earth. We all just assumed he was in the ocean."

On the phone with her friend, McKinney could hear his fingers clacking over computer keys. They hung up. A short while later, he called her back. "I think they found your uncle," he said, citing the Globe article, which he found online.

The news spread through the family. "Everyone was just freaking out," said McKinney, who lives in Raleigh.

In Jacksonville, N.C., John Almeida, a retired infantry officer who served in Vietnam, got the news. Now a pathologist in private practice, Almeida grew up hearing about his uncle's patriotism and decided to join the Marines, too. His mother, Claudia, was Ryan's youngest sister, and when she died in 1993 some of his things - his dress uniform, letters, and a journal - were passed on to Almeida.

Through reading his uncle's diary, Almeida, born a year after the plane went down, formed a sketchy image of the man. "I knew that as a boy he fought Golden Gloves," said Almeida, 63. "I knew he was a Boy Scout. I knew he had a sailboat named after his mother, the Lady Grace. I knew he had a pilot's license, and that he was a co-op student at Georgia Tech. I knew he saw 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' several times."

Almeida also knew that every time the phone rang after Ryan went missing, his grandmother thought - hoped - it was her boy coming home. But she died, along with Ryan's father and two sisters, without knowing exactly what happened to the oldest child, the only son.

A month before Ryan died, his mother got a long letter from him, written on onion skin paper. "Dear Ma," he wrote. "I got the identification bracelet. I'm glad you sent it. I needed some sort of a good luck charm with me. . . . I'm afraid there won't be much 'peace on earth' and 'good will toward men' but I'm dreaming of a white Christmas."

And just before he left for active duty, he'd given his girlfriend a little set of Marine Corps wings, which she wore on her suits.

In Summerville, S.C., Helen Schiller, 87, read the report about the recovery of Ryan McCown's remains. In her teens she had fallen for him. "He was what you would call a Southern gentleman," Schiller said. "He'd come over in his dress whites and, oh my gosh, he looked so darn good."

Before he left, he'd said: "We ought to think about getting married." Helen told him they would talk about it when he returned. "But deep down, we knew most of them weren't coming home," she said. "These were flights going over to Japan and they were very dangerous."

A week before he disappeared, McCown had made a crash landing at sea after his Corsair developed engine trouble. He was picked up by a PT boat 47 miles out from his Solomon Islands base.

At the funeral, people spoke of his courage in going right back into the air. "He could have taken time off to recuperate, but that wasn't his style," said Rear Admiral Lee Fisher. That January day, his squadron ran into dozens of enemy fighters; McCown's plane was last seen with a Japanese Zero on its tail. After he died, he was awarded the Purple Heart and Air Medal and promoted from captain to major.

For decades McCown remained a spectral figure to his descendants, unknown in life, mysterious in death. To them, he remained forever 27 years old. At the funeral reunion, both families - his father divorced his mother, remarried in the 1930s, and had two more children - met for the first time in years. Three generations pored over McCown's diary, admired his spiffy military uniform, and shared stories. They rented a bus and drove by some of the old family homes.

The two closest kinfolk were Almeida, born a year after his uncle disappeared, and Jane McCown McKinney, the half-sister who was an infant when he died.

But Helen Schiller was the only one at the funeral who actually remembered McCown. Dressed in a black suit, her hair neatly coiffed, she sat with the family and reminisced about her lost love. "He was not only a great officer, but he was a Charlestonian," she said. To be called a Charlestonian, she explained, was the highest of compliments. Bloodlines in this antebellum city can be as important as they are to European royalty.

She was Helen Miller then, a 19-year-old girl dazzled by all the military men who swarmed Charleston during the war years. She strolled arm-in-arm on the waterfront with McCown, so proud of how he "filled out his uniform." They went to parties at the Hotel Sumter and saw "Gone With the Wind." After McCown left, she married another pilot and moved to Texas.

Schiller giggled as Blair McKinney read portions of McCown's battered black diary aloud. May 30, 1942: "I got set for my date - dress whites, gardenia corsage with a red rose to let her know I remembered," he wrote. "We walked out on the balcony, the moon hung low in the east, turning an obscuring haze red."

Another time, they sat on Helen's porch listening to the radio, "not forgetting to unscrew the bulb," he wrote, the darkness better for romance. "Danced awhile and etc. Migawd, and she even wore gardenias."

To McKinney, the burial was bittersweet. It was comforting to know that he didn't go to a watery grave, buried instead in his beloved hometown. But she wished his loved ones were around to witness his return.

"As we grew older, we observed the grief of those who had known Ryan," she said in her eulogy. "We stand here for those family members who did not live long enough to be here today. Welcome home, Ryan, and thank you."

For Almeida, a proud military man who idolized his absent uncle, it was a relief to read the crash report and learn that "he was seen doing his duty, chasing a Japanese fighter." In his eulogy, Almeida said he has learned "that my uncle is much more than my imagination and much greater than my fantasies."

There was one last mission Major McCown managed to accomplish, a parting gift from the grave. "He is the bond in the family," said Almeida, "that brought us all together."

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, Sunday's Page One story on the burial of Major Marion Ryan McCown Jr. 65 years after he was shot down in World War II mischaracterized the relationship of the eulogist to Major McCown. Blair McKinney was the niece of Major McCown.

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