Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, an airplane carrying the remains of World War II veteran 1st Lt. Robert Eugene Oxford pierced the clouded sky above Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The Georgia farm boy and guitar picker died at age 24 in a plane crash in 1944 with seven fellow U.S. Army Air Corps members in a remote ravine in the Himalayas.
For the return of his remains to happen, countless efforts had to line up. People around the world who had never met or even heard of Oxford had to care.
His nephew’s wife had to become obsessed with the family legend; a charity director had to trek three days from an Indian village; a villager had to stop salvaging aluminum from the wreckage; and the mayor of Oxford’s hometown of Concord, in Pike County, had to paint the fence at the cemetery so it would look nice for a homecoming 73 years in the making.
Merrill Roan, the nephew’s wife, looked on somberly in a hangar as a worker wheeled the casket past an honor guard.
“I didn’t think I’d be this emotional,” she said, “because I didn’t know him.”
Roan learned about her husband Billy’s uncle in her mother-in-law’s kitchen. Roan loved to hear stories from old times in Concord, roughly 50 miles south of Atlanta, and about Oxford, the youngest of six siblings.
He went by Eugene and was slender with dark hair slicked to the left in oil. He picked gospel and hillbilly songs on guitar and took his sweetheart, Susan Brown, to music programs.
The couple met at church. Brown later told Roan she could hardly speak when she saw Oxford in his crisp dungarees and brilliant white shirt.
When he enlisted and left for war, he promised to marry Brown when he came back.
On Jan. 25, 1944, Oxford decided to help with a supply-ferrying flight from China to India. He wasn’t supposed to be on board, according to Roan, but thought the harder he worked, the sooner the commanders would send him home to Brown.
The flight departed at 7:40 a.m. for Chabua, India. It was still en route three hours later but soon crashed mysteriously, possibly because of the weather, according to Clayton Kuhles of MIA Recoveries, which works to find crash sites in the Himalayas.
Kuhles, who started the charity after discovering a wreckage site near Myanmar during a mountaineering expedition, said he heard about Oxford’s flight in 2004 from a World War II pilot.
Two years later, research took him to the Damroh village in India. Kuhles heard from an old-timer about a wreck to the north. Kuhles met another local who had been clipping aluminum from the wreckage to sell it.
Shocked, the nonprofit founder organized a team and made the three-day trek to the snow-speckled ravine.
After hours of trying to find identifying markings, Kuhles saw a stack of aluminum by a tree. The scavenger hadn’t had a chance to carry it away.
One piece near the bottom identified the plane, a B-24J, serial number 42-73308.
Soon, Roan, a genealogy buff, spotted a post on an online message board about efforts to find family of the eight who died in the crash that killed Oxford. The post led her to Kuhles’ organization. His crew hadn’t discovered human remains, but everyone knew the men must have been somewhere in the overgrown, rocky ravine.
Roan said she lobbied — and “raised Cain” — for a decade to get the feds to excavate.
In the meantime, Oxford’s legend grew. His name came up more. Relatives who had barely heard of him learned his story from articles in The Pike County Times.
Since Roan couldn’t meet him, she built a picture of Oxford in her mind:
He must’ve been a cut-up like his father, passionate and caring like his mother. Surely, he shared his brother Clay’s work ethic and his brother Fred’s humility.
The few surviving loved ones who remembered Oxford, including the woman who would have been his wife, were comforted to know where he was, even if he wasn’t home yet.
They also felt for the families of the other seven victims. When the site was excavated in 2016, the crew found only one set of remains before it was deemed too dangerous to continue.
Everyone who knew Oxford is gone now — the brothers, sisters, friends and fiancée. Susan Brown Parham, who waited decades to marry another, died in 2011.
But on Thursday, more than 20 relatives gathered at the airport. Dozens of members of the Patriot Guard Riders showed up, along with deputies and state troopers.
In the hangar, Roan stood in reverence, staring into the fabric of the American flag draped over the casket. The cavernous room was silent but for an overhead fan churning the air and steps on the concrete.
After salutes, soldiers lifted the casket and carried it to an awaiting hearse bound for Magnolia Cemetery in Concord, where a family plot has been waiting all along.