But the body buried that day in the small Hudson River town 50 miles north of Albany was not Moynihan’s. Instead, the Department of Defense revealed this month that it was owned by Army Air Forces Pfc. Edward H. Benson Jr., of Roanoke, Virginia.
The error was detailed when the Pentagon announced on March 10 that it had finally identified Benson’s remains, 77 years after his death.
Benson, who was 22 when he was killed March 22, 1945, is to be reinterred May 14, next to his parents and siblings in a Roanoke cemetery.
He remained in Moynihan’s grave for three years before the army realized the mistake, removed him and buried the real Moynihan there in 1951. Benson’s body was taken to a cemetery military in the Philippines, where he remained unidentified for 71 years.
His case illustrates the chaos in the aftermath of World War II as the government, working with limited technology, attempted to recover, identify and bury the war dead – a process that continues today with more sophisticated tools.
Both Benson and Moynihan were stationed near an airstrip just off Biak Beach, now part of Indonesia.
Japanese aircraft bombed and strafed the enlisted men’s tents, mess hall, warehouses, and air traffic control center. American planes were destroyed.
The dead from the raid were first buried in Biak. After the war, they were exhumed and reburied in a large cemetery 900 miles away in New Guinea.
It’s unclear how Benson’s body was identified as Moynihan’s, according to a recent DPAA report on the case that sifted through a tangle of old records.
But in April 1951, questions were raised about identification, the report said.
A mix-up was suspected, and in September 1951, an unidentified soldier buried in New Guinea Cemetery was exhumed and examined. Using dental records, experts realized it was Moynihan.
In November 1951, an army official traveled to Glens Falls with Moynihan’s real body, according to the DPAA and the Binghamton Press. Benson’s body was exhumed and taken away by the official, the newspaper reported.
Benson’s unidentified remains were shipped to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, where other American soldiers were buried. It was declared “unrecoverable”.
In 2003, Benson’s son, retired Marine Corps Col. James H. Benson of Little River, SC, began a series of investigations with the Department of Defense about his father’s possible accountability.
“I started tracking him down,” he said in a phone interview. “It was on and off for… years.”
James Benson was 2 years old when his father was killed. “I never knew him,” he said. “I wanted to know more about him: how he was killed, why can’t we bring him home. He was a stranger. »
Edward Benson was known as “Pete”, his son said. According to his draft registration card, he was modest in height: 5 feet 6 inches and about 130 pounds. He worked at a large Norfolk and Western Railway yard in Roanoke.
Young Benson said his father came to visit him at least once. “We have pictures of him holding me when I was 2 years old,” he said.
“I just remember the conversation and all the good stuff,” he said. “He had three sisters and his mother. Her father died before going abroad. They raved about Pete: everything Pete did was good; Pete was a good boy.
Despite the passage of so much time, he praised the DPAA and the military.
“When you consider that our government has been hunting down soldiers who have been dead for 77 years, there are a lot of good things to say,” Benson said. “They did a great job.”
In the early 2000s, James Benson conducted research and continued to ask the Department of Defense to look into the possibility that the body in Manila that was in Moynihan’s grave was that of his father, according to the report by the DPAA.
This body was the only one of the three unknowns in Biak’s raid that had not yet been identified. And Benson was the only soldier in the raid whose body had never been officially located.
But the agency that preceded the DPAA was reluctant to conduct exhumations to investigate cases, the report said. Additionally, he disagreed with James Benson’s theory that the body in Manila might be that of his father. The quest is blocked.
With the creation of the DPAA in 2015, the exhumation policy changed, with the aim of identifying more missing or unidentified service members.
The Benson family submitted DNA samples, and in January 2020 the body in Manila was exhumed and sent to a government laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii for analysis.
Last month, James Benson got a call from an army official. “Jim, I have great news,” he said. “They identified your father.”
“It caused a big sip,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. … It was such a shock after all these years.
The DPAA said dental and anthropological analyses, circumstantial evidence and DNA were used to make the identification.
“Pete” Benson is to be buried in the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery in Roanoke, his skeletal remains in Army uniform, Benson said. “There are eight spots there, and there’s one left for him,” he said.