The Johnny Staats Project

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Clarence Dragoo was Johnny Staats' Great Uncle or his paternal grandmother's Brother.

Remains of WWII bomber navigator returned to WV 72 years after plane shot down

Listed as missing in action since early 1945, the fate of 2nd Lt. Clarence Dragoo is finally known.  The plane on which Dragoo served as navigator disappeared in February 1945 following a bombing run over northern Italy. 

 

Late Wednesday, it was a plane that carried the West Virginia native’s remains to Charleston’s Yeager Airport. There, a West Virginia National Guard honor guard detail conducted a “dignified arrival” ceremony, draping Dragoo’s coffin in an American flag and marching in step as they carried it from the cargo bay of a commercial airliner to a waiting hearse.

Members of the honor guard stood and saluted as the hearse and a small procession of vehicles carrying relatives and military personnel exited the parking apron at Yeager’s passenger terminal. The hearse was accompanied back to Jackson County for a funeral service and burial by about 30 motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard organization.

Dragoo grew up in the Sandyville area, where he was treasurer of his FFA chapter at Gilmore High School, edited the school’s yearbook, took part in drama club productions and played guitar and sang at Copper Fork Community Church.

“He was my best friend,” said Dragoo’s sister and closest living relative, Bernice Bruno of Camarillo, California.

“He was only 15 months older than me, and we enjoyed each other’s company. He was very supportive of me.”

It was the last day of February in 1945 that the bomber carrying the 21-year-old Dragoo and 10 other crew members was seen in flight for the last time.

Dragoo’s B-24J Liberator had just taken part in a bombing raid on the German-controlled Isarco-Albes railroad bridge in northern Italy. After the raid, crews aboard other B-24s involved in the bombing run glimpsed the bomber carrying Dragoo and his crew mates skimming the snow-capped mountaintops of the Austrian Alps near Lake Wiezen with only two of its four engines still functioning.

Since no parachutes were seen exiting the B-24, which had been damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and since the aircraft failed to appear at a post-raid rallying point or return to its base in southern Italy, its crew was reported as missing in action. Initially, it was presumed they perished when their aircraft crashed somewhere in the rugged, expansive alpine terrain of southern Austria, where the wreckage and their bodies were never found.

But during the five years after the war ended, the bodies of five of the bomber’s crew washed up along a 100-mile expanse of North Adriatic Sea coast in the vicinity of Grado, Italy, leading investigators abandon the Alps along the Italian-Austrian border as the likely final resting place for the Liberator and its crew.

In 2013, an Italian citizen wrote to U.S. military researchers about the discovery by scuba divers of underwater aircraft wreckage, possibly containing human remains, in about 40 feet of water just off the coast of Grado. In September of that year, a group of recreational divers located and photographed the aircraft, including a portion of the wreckage that bore a serial number matching that assigned to the missing B-24.

In 2015, teams of divers from the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, the Grado Civil Patrol and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) completed an underwater archaeological excavation of the site, during which human remains were recovered and analyzed.

According to Dragoo’s extended family of West Virginia descendants, the underwater recovery effort had a Jackson County connection, since the father of Nate Johnson, one of the Navy divers, grew up in Ravenswood.

“To identify Dragoo’s remains, scientists from the DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched his family, as well as dental and anthropological analysis, which matched his records,” according to a release from the DPPA.

Bruno and two grand-nieces were administered DNA swabs to collect the genetic material needed to confirm the identity of his remains.

“It took two years to complete the testing, but once it was done, it turned out to be an undeniable match,” Bruno said.

“In the beginning, I always had a hope that his plane would be found,” she said. “Even if there were no survivors, at least Clarence and the others could finally go home.”

But as the years following the ill-fated bombing run turned into decades, Bruno’s hopes of the B-24 being found dwindled.

“To know now that his remains have been discovered and identified, and that Clarence is finally coming home, it does bring a measure of closure,” she said. “But I’m very unhappy that I can’t be there for his service.”

The missing airman’s mother, Stella Dragoo, kept a photo of Clarence, posed next to a B-24 following a mission, displayed prominently in her home until she died.

“Now it hangs on my wall,” Bruno said.

After being notified that her son had been declared missing in action, “I don’t think Mother ever recovered,” Bruno said.

After Dragoo graduated from high school, he enrolled in Capitol City Commercial College in Charleston and studied accounting, working as a bookkeeper to cover tuition and living expenses, and occasionally playing guitar and singing with other members of his band on WCHS radio, according to family members.

He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in January 1943 and earned his navigator wings and commission as a second lieutenant at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana, in July 1944. He arrived in Italy for combat duty in November of that year.

Not long after he began guiding bombing missions, the navigator put his training to the test when a Liberator flying just ahead of his bomber exploded when hit by anti-aircraft fire, spraying hundreds of gallons of fuel onto his aircraft, according to a family history.

“With blackened windows and damaged rudders, flying blind and using only instruments was the only way to return the plane to its base,” according to the history. “Miraculously, the crew managed to do this. Upon returning, Dragoo related that he was able to use everything he had learned in navigation school.”

“Clarence was a great guy and a nice looking kid who was a real whiz at math,” Bruno said. “He, like all those people on the plane, were just boys when they did all the things they were expected to do.”

Bruno said that by identifying her brother after being missing in action for 72 years, “our military has shown me that they never give up when it comes to bringing one of their own home.”

After arriving at Yeager Airport, Dragoo’s remains were escorted to Ripley by family, friends and motorcycle-riding members of the Patriot Guard. A funeral service with military rites will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday in

Waybright Funeral Home in Ripley.