Anchorage, Alaska — Growing up, David Bass knew his uncle Alfred “Fred” Turgeon only by the photo on his grandmother’s dresser.
The 23-year-old airman from Cordova was lost when his plane was shot down in 1943 over Romania.
Turgeon was one of five Alaskans whose remains were not recovered after World War II. But a few weeks ago, Bass got a phone call from the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency saying that after 78 years, his uncle’s remains had been identified and would be returned to the family.
“It was a really emotional moment for all of us,” Bass said over the phone earlier this week from his home in Indianapolis.
Bass, who was born in Alaska, had volunteered a sample of his DNA several years ago to the POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The agency began exhuming remains in 2017 at a Belgian cemetery where 80 American soldiers were believed to have been buried. The remains of Turgeon and others were sent to the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for identification. Scientists used the DNA provided by Bass, his cousin and his aunt Joan Cutler, Turgeon’s sister, to make the identification, Bass said.
Since he became involved in the identification process, Bass said, he’s learned a lot about his uncle and even connected with other families who lost loved ones on the same plane Turgeon was on.
When Turgeon was a child, his family moved several times because his stepfather was a Coast Guard officer. Turgeon grew up and attended school in Cordova and considered himself an Alaskan, according to Bass. The family was transferred to Boston just before World War II and Turgeon enlisted in the Army Air Corps there at age 21. His family transferred back to Ketchikan just before Turgeon left for training, and Bass said Turgeon never actually lived in Ketchikan although it was listed as his official home address.
Turgeon, a technical sergeant, was deployed with the 98th Bomb Group, 344th Bomber Squadron to North Africa in 1942. The group joined other B-24 squadrons on Aug. 1, 1943, in Operation Tidal Wave, a daylight bombing raid on Nazi oil refineries in Ploiesti, Romania.
More than 300 airmen were believed to have died in the operation and another 100 were captured, according to the National World War II Museum. Turgeon was working as a waist gunner and radio operator when his plane was hit by flak and burst into flames. Of the 10-man crew, only the captain survived, taken as a prisoner of war.
For decades, Turgeon’s mother and sisters held out hope he might return because his body had not been identified, Bass said.
“They always held out hope that perhaps he was in a prisoner of war camp or that he had amnesia and didn’t know who he was and was alive in Europe — the same kind of thing I’m sure that probably every mother who lost someone in World War II was hoping,” he said.
It’s a blessing that one of Turgeon’s sisters is still alive to see his remains identified, Bass said. Joan Cutler was only 7 when Turgeon went to war.
Bass said he and his cousins have been proud to learn his history. “It’s a great closure for us as a family,” Bass said. “I wish that my mom was still alive to be able to see it.” A funeral for Turgeon with full military honors is planned for fall in Shoreline, Washington, and Bass said he will be buried next to his older sister, Lorraine Bass.
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