Seventy-nine years after Wilbur A. Mitts was killed during World War II combat operations in the western Pacific Ocean, the Navy sailor will finally be laid to rest in his hometown.
The 24-year-old Monterey County man’s remains will be buried at Mission Memorial Park in Seaside on September 11 for a public funeral service, U.S. Navy officials said. Sailors from Navy Reserve Center San Jose will provide full military honors for Petty Officer Mitts.
Mitts, U.S. Navy Aviation Radioman First Class, was killed on September 10, 1944 while his crew was flying over enemy military targets on the Palau Islands, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
He was assigned to Navy Torpedo Squadron 20, USS Enterprise. He was a crewman on a TBM-1 Avenger aircraft when it was struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire, and crashed into the ocean.
“TBM-1 Avenger with a crew of three took off from the USS Enterprise for a strike mission against Japanese forces in the Palau Islands. The plane was last seen spinning violently before crashing into the water a few hundred feet from Malakal Island. All three members of the crew were lost in the incident,” DPAA wrote.
In the years following the war, Mitts’ remains were not recovered. For decades, he was memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
“While initial efforts to locate Mitts and his crewmembers were not successful, the effort to find
them never stopped,” DPAA wrote.
Following the war, the American Graves Registration Service, an organization that searches for and recovers fallen American military members, conducted exhaustive searches of battle areas and crash sites in Palau in 1947. Investigators could not find any evidence of Mitts or his aircraft.
In September 2021, Project Recover, a nonprofit organization that searches for missing Americans, found human remains and material evidence. Remains were sent to the DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Hawaii for analysis. Scientists from the DPAA and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used dental and mitochondrial DNA analysis.
Earlier this year, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency officially confirmed that the remains were identified as Mitts.
At 12:30 p.m. Thursday, a hearse carrying Petty Officer Mitts will be escorted to Mission Memorial Park by the California Highway Patrol, Seaside Police Department, Morgan Hill Police Department, Gilroy fire and police departments, Santa Clara County Sherriff’s Office, and San Jose Police Department.
The following escort route will be used:
101 South to Exit 390 (CA 87 South)
CA-87 South to left exit 1A (CA 85 South Gilroy)
CA-85 South Gilroy to exit 1A (CA 101 South Los Angeles)
CA 101 South Los Angeles to exit 336 (CA-156 West Monterey Peninsula)
CA-156 West Monterey Peninsula to CA-1 South to exit 404 (Freemont Blvd)
Freemont Blvd to Ord Grove Ave. left to Ord Grove Ave.