'I Carry My Grandmother's Pain:' Searching For MIA Service Members Decades Later

Anita Evers put together this binder full of photos, letters, and newspaper clippings about her uncle Richard Bazata. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)
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June 25, 2019 - 6:45am

Nearly 800 Nebraskans who served in conflicts from World War II to Vietnam are still unaccounted for. The government agency working to find those remains came to Omaha recently to meet with families still searching for loved ones. 

"This is the picture of my uncle. Kind of looks like a movie star, doesn’t he?" says Anita Evers. She's flipping through the pages of a large binder full of memories. "Extremely handsome and very, very proud to serve."

Raymond Bazata, known to his family as Richard, grew up on the family farm in Howells, Nebraska.  

He went overseas with the Army Air Force 100th Bomb Group during World War II. In his letters, he often reminisced about home. 

"I imagine you people are getting prepared for picking corn," Richard wrote. "You know I’d pick corn for a month instead of sweating out a mission. Brother, does a guy sweat."

Richard was flying his last mission over Germany in March 1945 when his plane was hit by enemy flak and went down. He was just 22 years old; his remains were never found.  

Anita compiled this collection of photos and letters over the past several years. But they’re not her memories – she never got the chance to meet Richard. Instead, she became close to him through the stories of her grandmother.  

"I personally carry my grandmother’s pain of not knowing," she said. "Just because I was little and spent so much time on the farm with her. She was just never able to put that to rest."

Emma Bazata never gave up on finding her son. She wrote letter after letter after letter to Air Force officials asking for information: 

"Dear sir — I got a book from you telling me about my boy. So please tell me about him. Where is he buried? I wrote so many times but don’t get no answer. I thought I would get a letter but nothing comes…his broken mother, Mrs. Emma Bazata."

"It just makes me cry every time I read it," Anita said. 

Anita Evers reads from a newspaper included in her record of looking for her Uncle Richard. (Becca Costello, NET News)

It wasn’t until long after Emma’s death that Richard’s family had renewed hope of finding him.

Anita got in touch with a government agency whose sole purpose is to find and identify the remains of service members missing in action.

The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, has identified more than 3,000 people since 1973.

Director Kelly McKeague has met hundreds of family members across the country.

"What we hear more often than not is time has not healed," McKeague said. "Decades of time may have passed, but the uncertainty attached to their loved ones’ loss exacerbates the grief that they have."

About 200 people traveled from several states last month to attend a DPAA family update meeting in Omaha.

Dozens of researchers and scientists met with family members to give a detailed update on each case.

Joe Dunn of Lincoln has his cheek swabbed for DNA at a DPAA Family Update Meeting in Omaha. (Photo by Becca Costello, NET News)

It’s also an opportunity to collect DNA from relatives. That’s the most critical piece of this mission, but it’s also the biggest barrier. It can be difficult to get DNA from family members of World War II service members.

Joe Dunn of Lincoln had his cheek swabbed for DNA at the Omaha meeting. He’s early in his search for information about his uncle Homer, who also went missing during World War II.

“And I just found out today that my cousin has already offered her DNA sample," Dunn said. "So now they have both the maternal side and the paternal side, and with those two together they get a stronger ability to match.”

It takes an incredible amount of time and money to search for these missing in action service members.

But McKeague says funding the mission isn’t controversial, and it defines us as a nation.

"Here we are decades later putting not only the resources behind it but the steadfast commitment to vigorously pursue finding those answers," he said. "And to be able to do it in such a way that even with a loss that is now pushing 75-plus years in the case of World War II, generations later it’s as important to them as to their grandmother or great grandmother."

Anita Evers is just one of many continuing the search on behalf of a grandparent, and the DPAA could be close to getting her closure.

Archaeologists excavated the crash site last year and possible remains were sent to Offutt Air Force Base here in Nebraska, one of two labs used for identification.

Some witnesses say the crew parachuted out of the plane before it crashed and were later executed by German soldiers. If that's true, it would be much harder to locate his remains; there’s no way to know if Richard will be identified from the crash site.  

But Anita says even if the search has to continue, she’s grateful to know much more about her uncle’s service than her grandmother was ever able to find out.

"Thinking of my grandmother and having that answer to find out all this information really has put my heart and her heart at peace."  

Anita Evers hols a photo of her uncle, Richard Bazata. (Becca Costello, NET News)



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