Lt. John J. Heffernan, a long-lost victim of World War II, finally returned to America on Tuesday.
Nearly 80 years after he perished in a fire accident in Burma when Japanese forces shot down his B-25G bomber, Heffernan’s remains were flown back to New Jersey on an early morning flight that landed at the Newark Liberty International Airport.
Since his death on February 22, 1944, Heffernan, 24, a US Army Air Corps navigator who hoped to become a doctor if he survived the war, had been considered missing and presumed dead by the Pentagon. His remains were only found and identified last year.
For years, Heffernan’s family pleaded with US military authorities to find his body. But various leaders in politically unstable Burma, now known as Myanmar, have blocked American efforts to find Heffernan’s remains as well as those of six other crew members who died with him.
Exclusive to Mike Kelly:After eight decades, a lost soldier finally returns home
Last year, a special US military research team that travels the world in search of the nearly 80,000 unaccounted American war dead from World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts was authorized to enter Myanmar and found Heffernan’s remains – several teeth, a shoulder bone and skull fragments. The tiny pieces, unearthed under nearly 10 feet of mud in a peanut field, were later transported to a military morgue in Hawaii and identified with DNA samples from Heffernan’s nephew, Andrew McVeigh, who lives in Oakland.
The search for Heffernan’s body was reported exclusively by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network.
McVeigh, 72, is now planning a funeral with full military honors for the uncle he never met.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Army honor guard carried Heffernan’s flag-draped casket from a United Airlines commercial flight from Hawaii that landed at Newark Liberty International Airport just after dawn. Baggage handlers removed their hats out of respect, and a contingent of more than a dozen New Jersey State Police troopers and Port Authority police officers stood to attention in line.
After being placed in a hearse, the casket was escorted by police to Feeney Funeral Home in Ridgewood.
The arrival at the airport and the honor guard ceremony are the first of what will be nearly a week of tributes for the Second World War veteran.
Wake and funeral information
A vigil is planned at Feeney on Friday, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Heffernan’s funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church in Wyckoff. Mass will be streamed live on the church’s website: saintelizabeths.org/live-streaming.
After mass, Heffernan’s casket is expected to be escorted by motorcycle veterans and police across the George Washington Bridge to Queens to be buried in a plot with his mother.
Stay tuned to NorthJersey.com for coverage of Heffernan’s funeral.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a producer of podcasts and documentary films. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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