The remains of a World War II soldier from Northridge were finally returned to U.S. soil June after a two-year archeological excavation and forensic investigation in Papua New Guinea
Second Lt. Byron Stenen was among nine soldiers identified by military officials, and the co-pilot of the B-24D Liberator, a fighter jet that crashed on Oct. 19, 1944. He was 21 when he died.
The investigation was prompted after a group of New Guinean villagers discovered the wreckage of the aircraft along with a handful of military dog tags that were delivered to the U.S. Embassy in 2002.
Stenen, who was born and raised in Northridge and attended Canoga Park High School, received a full military burial at Arlington National Cemetery June 27.
Stenen’s brother, Norman Stenen, 88, who lives in Brea, said he still remembers the day when he received the news that his younger brother was missing.
He said his mother received a letter from the U.S. Military describing the situation. His mother was later visited by two military officials after a search and rescue mission failed to reveal Bryon’s whereabouts.
Stenen said Bryon always wanted to be a pilot, but became worried when he was assigned to a fighter jet during the war.
“He was a fun-loving young man,” Stenen said. “Byron was a typical fly-boy: always happy and carefree.”
Stenen said the last time he saw his younger brother eating dinner at their Northridge home was shortly before he was deployed for the war.
He said Bryon was eager to serve his country and enlisted in the military soon after he graduated high school.
After over 60 years of living with the loss of Bryon, Stenen was once again surprised with the news he received from the U.S. Military explaining the discovery of his brother’s remains.
“I started to hear rumors in 2002 that the military found the plane,” Stenen said. “I was communicating with military personnel through letters and e-mails when they finally told me that Byron has been officially identified.”
Although the discovery of past war casualties – especially casualties from World War II – may seem rare, such findings are relatively common, said Paul Bethke, who works at the Army Casualty Office in Alexandria, Virginia.
Bethke was assigned to the unit that coordinated the excavation of the crashed B-24D Liberator and briefed Stenen on the procedure of Bryon’s identification process. He said he explained in detail the stages of DNA tests that were administered by the department’s investigation team.
Bethke said it is common that farmers and construction companies, in remote locations, stumble upon U.S. Military dog tags and the remains of military aircrafts.
“A lot goes into what we do,” Bethke said. “From scientific investigations to family briefings, the process can be rather lengthy.”
According to Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command officials, 78,000 World War II soldiers are still unaccounted for, while approximately 35,000 are deemed recoverable. According to JPAC, the remaining World War II soldiers missing in action were most likely lost at sea.
While Bethke said his work could become complicated, he admitted that the difficult part is not always notifying the family members.
“These are usually people who have dealt with a lot of grief over many years,” Bethke said. “I’m the guy that carries the answers to the questions that haunted these people all these years. They are usually relieved, as they can finally put a sense of closure to their fallen heroes.”