BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. --
(Editor’s Note: Ted Mikita is leading a group of private citizens on a mission to recover the remains of several 307th Bombardment Group Airmen killed during an air raid against the Japanese Imperial Navy during World War II. The group believes the bodies of the fallen Long Rangers are still located off the coast of a small Pacific island. The Airmen, known informally as the Dixon crew, sacrificed their lives to defeat the Japanese juggernaut. This is the second article detailing the exploits of these Airmen and Mikita’s efforts to bring them home. The first article is available here. )
Addressed to his little cousin, it was one of the last letters Staff Sgt. Herbert Farnham would ever write home.
“Dear Kit...I don’t think I told you I am now in New Guinea...It hasn’t been so long ago that they were here and we had a good time looking over the places they occupied and some of the things they left behind. It certainly was interesting...I think it is about 4 a.m. so perhaps I’d better go to bed...Write soon Kit. Love, Herb.”
A B-24 Liberator waist gunner during World War II, Farnham and the rest of Capt. William Dixon’s aircrew were shot down during the 307th Bombardment Group’s raid on the Japanese-held islands of Palau on August 28, 1944, two days after Farnham wrote his last letter to his cousin. Adding to the tragedy, many of their remains were never recovered.
Today, the note is in the hands of Ted Mikita, a U.S. Navy veteran and Farnham’s second cousin. Ever since hearing their story, Mikita has dedicated himself to making sure their sacrifice is never forgotten.
Nearly 75 years after the Dixon Crew perished, Mikita and other relatives of the Dixon crew Airmen may be closer than ever to bringing back the remains of the fallen Long Rangers.
Finding a Calling
The roots of Mikita’s quest go all the way back to his childhood. Growing up, he said he was always fascinated with the U.S. Navy, due in no small part to his parent’s military service.
“My mom was one of the first Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), while my dad was a gunner and radio operator for naval aircraft in the Pacific during World War II,” said Mikita. “Hearing stories about their time in the service and my own reading of naval history led me to be interested in the Navy.”
Eventually, his mother would push him to pursue a career in the Navy.
“At some point in high school, my mother told me to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy,” he said. “I was accepted and eventually graduated with my commission. From there I went on to pilot the P-3 Orion for 11 years.”
Now a commercial airline pilot, Mikita’s past Navy experience gave him the great reverence he holds for his heritage of military service today. This respect came into play as he sought to build his family tree following the death of his mother in 2013.
“I knew from old letters that, in addition to my parent’s service, I had a grandpa who served in World War I and a second cousin who died during World War II,” said Mikita. “I decided to use a military archives site to uncover information on their history.”
While his efforts to find out more about his parents’ and grandfather’s military service was not successful, Mikita was able to uncover a treasure trove of history on his cousin, Farnham, including the revelation that B-24 he served on was shot down and only a few parts of the aircraft had been recovered.
“I just remember thinking, holy cow, this guy is in my family, I need to know more,” said Mikita.
He immediately reached out to family members, such as his Aunt Kit, who had received several letters from Farnham. Within these letters, Mikita made another astonishing discovery.
“In one of the letters, Herb talks about joining an all-instructor combat crew,” said Mikita. “I realized how talented and unique a crew like this was.”
The revelation spurred Mikita to take his investigation to new heights. He became resolved to visit the wreckage of the B-24 his cousin served on and to connect with other family members of Airmen who served on the Dixon crew.
“The way I figured it, my cousin died with ten of his brothers, so their relatives would be like family to me,” said Mikita.
Among the members of the Dixon crew that gave their lives was 1st Lt. John Sarles. An operations specialist on the 13th Air Force staff, he volunteered to fly on 307th Bombardment Group missions as an observer. According to Mikita, he was trying to meet the quota of sorties needed to go home and see his infant daughter Judith for the first time. Unfortunately for Judith, there was never much of a chance to gain insight about her father’s death, both circumstantially and emotionally.
“Nobody in my family ever seemed to have a clear understanding of where his plane crashed,” said Judith Sarles. “It was generally not something my mother ever talked about much, and there was no counseling or support on the matter, it was just something you buried deep down.”
This lack of understanding about the crew and their crash, though not through their own fault, was a similar scenario for several families of the Dixon crew members, until Ted Mikita began to establish contact with them.
Mikita eventually rallied at least one family member from every Dixon crew member who died in the crash. In the process, he was able to document collections of the crew’s things and letters their family members had been keeping.
While it was normally Mikita providing most of the knowledge on the crash and the rest of the crew to the family member, that changed when he found a chapter of the Dixon crew’s story he overlooked.
“One day I realized that there were two crewmembers totally left out of my research,” said Mikita. “The usual bombardier and navigator were subbed out on the day of the crash, and by a chance of fate survived.”
He eventually established contact with Tom Terry, the son of the substituted navigator, who provided Mikita with more info on the crew than any other relative prior. Terry also provided him with the motivation to take on a new challenge.
“During one of our conversations, I brought up the location of the Dixon bomber’s wreckage,” said Mikita. “When I mentioned there were likely remains left in the nose of the plane, he immediately said, ‘we need to bring those boys home.’”
The thought of spearheading any efforts to repatriate the crew’s remains hadn’t occurred to Mikita before that point. He had already fulfilled his desire to visit the bomber’s debris in Palau earlier that year, thanks to Bent Prop, an organization dedicated to finding the remains of MIA service members.
“Finding the nose of the plane was actually what had inspired Dr. Patrick Scannon, the founder of Bent Prop, to start the organization, so at the time I didn’t want to intrude on their turf,” said Mikita.
Despite the fact that their case had helped to start the organization, Bent Prop had been having trouble making headway on recovering any of the Dixon crew’s remains due to the complexity of the case and the overload of other cases they deal with. With these hurdles and Terry’s encouragement in mind, Mikita decided to ask Bent Prop to take on the case himself.
“They not only said ‘go for it,’ but I also got some advice from Dr. Scannon himself,” said Mikita. “He gave a lot of insight on how to best get the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) to act on the case, and promised to be there when I finally got an audience with them.”
Labor of Love
Since taking up the cause, Mikita has been nothing short of dedicated to the recovery of the crew’s remains.
“I’ve traveled around the country to different national archives, the AFHRA (Air Force Historical Research Agency), and museums,” said Mikita. “I’ve also made countless trips over thousands of hours to visit the other crewman’s relatives to interview them, as well as document and research their collections of items related to their relative.”
He has made two more expeditions to Palau. The first one came in 2016 where, aided by aerial photos of the pieces of the bomber crashing and the memory a local islander, he was able to find previously undiscovered pieces of the Dixon crew’s bomber plane in a creek bed. The discovery provided a complete picture of where the pieces of the plane crashed.
“Having found the missing piece, this case is now very compelling for more investigation,” said Mikita. “It’s the last piece of physical evidence that should be needed for the DPAA to take action.”
Mikita returned the following year, using a drone to photograph the crash sites and reconstruct the flight paths of the aircraft’s different pieces from where it was hit.
With missing puzzle pieces and extensive research in hand, Mikita believes there is finally enough research and evidence behind the case for the DPAA to act.
Continuing the Journey
Even with all the progress made, there are more challenges to overcome. However, Mikita already has the achievement of leading other Dixon crew family members to a new sense of their heritage.
“I have a much better attitude about the whole situation then I once had,” said Judith. “I didn’t want to even think about it for so long, but just getting my dad’s things out for Ted has helped me.”
For Mikita and the rest of the Dixon crew’s family, their new understanding and appreciation for the life and sacrifices of crew has only strengthened their resolve to see the repatriation of their remains through.
“It’s always been about resurrecting the story of these heroes and their sacrifice,” said Mikita. “To recover their remains would add such an exciting, meaningful aspect to those efforts.”