The newly discovered remains of an American soldier who once helped track down millions of dollars-worth of stolen jewels after World War II are finally headed home to Delaware. The homecoming comes 62 years after his plane went missing over Alaska.
Colonel Eugene Smith, fondly known to his relatives as "Uncle Gene," loved investigating crimes and solving mysteries, according to Smith’s nephew.
The height of Smith’s mystery-solving career was in 1946 when he acted as the lead investigator on the Hesse jewel heist, court martialing the three U.S. officers responsible for the $2.5 million (approximately $31 million today) theft.
"As a kid, I always imagined him recovering artifacts that the Nazi Germans had taken," Smith’s nephew Brian Gorman said. "Later, I learned that he actually found jewels [throughout Europe] that American officers stole from a German estate. He brought them to justice."
Along with Smith’s remains, those of 17 other service members have been recovered and their identities confirmed from the crash site of a C-124 military aircraft. The plane collided into Mount Gannett in Alaska on Nov. 22, 1952. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is working to bring the remains of the men and women home under full military honors.
For “Uncle Gene,” this dignified transfer will occur on July 24.
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A "Good-Spirited Trickster"
Born in County Cavan, Ireland, Smith immigrated to the United States when he was 13 years old. He settled in Wilmington, Delaware, with his father, mother, and seven brothers and sisters.
"He was known to be a bit of a good-spirited trickster, always playing with and teasing the younger kids," Gorman said.
The playful immigrant felt a loyalty to his new country, joining the Delaware National Guard while in high school. He went on active duty with the Army, and in 1942 was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the military police, investigating crimes during World War II.
After being tasked with the Hesse case, Smith became chief of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. Later, when the Air Force was formed, he switched branches to become a senior Air Force investigator. In 1952, he was named the director of the office of special investigation for the Alaskan Air command at Elmendorf Air Force Base.
With 11 crewmen and 41 passengers, he left Seattle, Washington, by plane on Nov. 22, ready to take up his new position. The group never made it, hitting a patch of inclement weather that forced the plane 20 miles off course to its inevitable crash.
Smith’s family was notified of the accident as they were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. They waited as a recovery mission was attempted, but the storms that had caused the plane to go down also buried it beyond detection by search parties.
For all intents and purposes, the plane was lost — for six decades.
“He was the uncle we never met, but we never missed him,” Gorman said. “Stories of him always filled our house.”
Smith’s sister Peg even created an area in her dining room to remember him, placing his desk with his nameplate “Eugene Smith: Colonel USAF” and service ribbons in a place where all could see them.
In June 2012, an aircraft was discovered on Colony Glacier during an Alaska National Guard training mission. The recovery effort, headed by JPAC, has been ongoing for three years so far, with investigators collecting artifacts and remains for analysis. With each year, the top level of the glacier recedes further, revealing more evidence of the wreckage and keeping the search alive.
"We will continue operations until the glacier reveals all of its secrets to us," says JPAC Public Affairs officer Lee Tucker.
DNA testing has allowed investigators to identify the collected remains.
At the end of May 2014, the results were confirmed: Colonel Eugene Smith had finally been found.
“After 62 years, we finally had something positive to bring back to the family,” Gorman said. “The entire family was ecstatic.”
The Air Force Mortuary Specialist brought Smith’s family a book filled with the history, findings, and pictures of artifacts from the plane. The family even received pieces of the plane recovered from the crash, which now hang in a shadow box by the rest of Smith’s service medals.
Gorman and his cousin Jim will travel to Hawaii at the end of July to accompany their “Uncle Gene” as he is escorted from JPAC facilities back to Wilmington. Though all that was found of Smith was a piece of his skull, he will receive a full casket complete with his rank and uniform.
Smith’s remains will arrive in Delaware through dignified transport on July 24, and he will be buried with full military honors at All Saints Cemetery beside his parents and some of his siblings the following day.
"We’re finally bringing Uncle Gene home," Gorman says. "This last mystery is finally solved."