Portland son grows closer to father he never knew

By Carolina Hidalgo, The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. - Leonard Gionet had never come closer to his dad than he did Monday morning, ducking into the Army green radio room of a Boeing B-17 at Aurora State Airport. He sat on a worn green chair in the World War II-era bomber, the sun filtering in through an open window.

Nearly 67 years ago, his dad, Tech. Sgt. Leonard A. Gionet, had ducked into a similar room. From a small chair bolted to the plane's plywood floor, he manned the radio, World War II raging outside the curved walls.

His plane, nicknamed "Naughty but Nice" and sporting a scantily clad woman painted on its side, never made it out of the war. Shot down by a Japanese pilot, it crashed into the thick forests of Papua New Guinea. On June 26, 1943, Leonard A. Gionet left behind a new bride and 6-month-old son Leonard, who would spend a lifetime piecing together memories.

Growing up, the younger Gionet, now 67, had only his mom's stories and a large chest of memorabilia to fill in the gaps. But it wasn't until a surprising phone call two weeks ago from the Army's casualty affairs center that he ever felt a hint of closure.

After 66 years, his father's missing remains had been identified. Years of investigation and forensic testing meant Leonard A. Gionet would finally receive a proper military funeral and burial.

"All the memories came flooding back," said Gionet, who lives in Portland.

On the plane Monday morning, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Buck crouched against the green walls. Buck, the Army's casualty assistance officer tasked with visiting Gionet, had been so touched by the story that he personally arranged a flight for Gionet on The Collings Foundation's B-17, which tours the country as one of the few B-17s still flying. He said he hoped the flight would help bring closure for the younger Gionet.

"He can sit right where his father sat, and he could feel what his father felt," Buck said.

Gionet, resting his arm next to a boxy radio with worn dials and switches, recalled the bits and pieces he had heard about a dad he never got to meet.

"It's hard to replace a dad with just memories," he said. "I just know him through the stories. ... He was a radio guy. A hero."

The elder Gionet had been a future radio guy taking classes at Washington State College in Vancouver when he met his wife, Della, at a school dance in 1942. They married after a brief courtship and settled down on a base in Kansas. A month before his son's birth, he shipped out to war.

He had flown 36 missions when "Naughty but Nice" took off for its final flight above the island of New Britain. It dropped its bombs and descended to draw enemy fire away from its fellow planes. But a Japanese fighter pilot fired on the plane, instantly killing pilot 1st Lt. William J. Sarsfield Jr. and setting fire to its left wing. The fighter also brought down another B-17, nicknamed "Taxpayer's Pride."

Of the 10-man crew, one survived. The Army found the crash site six years later, collecting unknown, partial remains and burying them at Honolulu Cemetery.

The lone survivor, 1st Lt. Jose L. Holguin, who became a prisoner of war for two years after his parachute touched down on enemy territory, later made it his personal mission to find and identify as many of his crewmates' remains as possible. He visited the wreckage three times in the 1980s, recovering parts of the plane.

In 1984, after an Army investigation of the site, the remains in Hawaii were exhumed, and modern techniques led to five positive identifications.

The site remained untouched until 2001, when the Army sent a search and recovery team to excavate it. The team turned up coins, rings, badges and more human remains. Last summer, tests at an Army identification lab concluded the remains were those of the missing crewmembers, among them Leonard A. Gionet.

"They were sacrificing themselves and their ship," Buck said.

On Monday, Gionet's 4-year-old grandson Ren accompanied him to the plane. From his spot splayed across the bomber floor, Ren interrupted.

"This one fought in the war?" he asked. "It beat them?"

Gionet smiled and called Ren over for a photo in front of the radio equipment.

Before disembarking so others could tour the plane, Gionet took a minute to himself at the radio operator's chair.

"I think he would've been a great father," he said. "I'm sure he would've been a great father."