Washington County, MN, Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Director Doug Berglund never knew his grandmother’s younger brother, a U.S. Avenger pilot and squadron leader who was shot down over the South Pacific archipelago of Palau by enemy anti-aircraft fire during World War II in July 1944.
The Center for Homeland Defense and Security alum (Master’s Program cohort 1603/1604) said his grandmother, Theresa West, rarely spoke about his great-uncle over the years because it remained too painful for her to recall, though he said it was always clear how much she loved and was proud of her brother, and how bitter she remained over the years that he had been taken from her.
Berglund only knew bits and pieces about his great-uncle: Lt. Richard “Dick” Houle was a smart, college-educated, handsome, athletic, and newly married 25-year-old with a bright future ahead of him when he was shot down during a bombing run while leading a squadron that included an Avenger piloted by his wingman, good friend, and eventual U.S. President George H.W. Bush. He also knew his great-uncle had been considered Missing In Action (MIA) for decades because his body and that of his crew along with their airplane hadn’t been recovered.
There was little information about his great-uncle over the years, and the military never sent the family Lt. Houle’s medals, nor even informed them when a headstone was placed in his memory at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Minneapolis, MN.
Several years ago, Berglund had undertaken the task of preparing a memento of his great-uncle’s military service and “ultimate sacrifice” by requesting Ltn. Houle’s medals from the U.S. Navy and creating a shadowbox with the medals, insignia, and a photo of Lt. Houle.
When he presented the memento to his grandmother, Berglund said she was “shocked” and very emotional, adding that he believed that represented a “final chapter” and a kind of “closure” for her.
“I underestimated what it would mean for her,” he said. “She always hoped to learn more, as we all did. But we didn’t think we would. We didn’t have any idea anyone was looking for him.”
Berglund said he had also begun searching for any mention of his great-uncle with U.S. Department of Defense organizations in charge of handling MIA military members, but he said he found no sign that a search was already underway for his great-uncle’s plane and his and his crew’s remains.
Project Recover (a non-profit organization formerly known as The Bent Prop Project) and its founder Pat Scannon had been searching for Ltn. Houle’s plane and any remains they could locate since 1994, nearly a decade before Scannon met former Pres. Bush at a gathering in 2003 and was asked to find Lt. Houle.
In 1993, Scannon had helped in the successful search to locate a Japanese trawler that Bush had sunk in Palau and confirmed it was an armed vessel, not a civilian one. While there, Scannon spotted a B-24 bomber wing partially submerged in the Palauan waters, and it sparked an interest in the 200-plus U.S. military aircraft shot down in the area during World War II.
Scannon said Bush recognized him at the gathering and pulled him aside, offering a detailed account of the day his buddy Lt. Houle was shot down and asking him to “find my friend.”
“I think about the potential he had and the sacrifice he made. I’m honored by his generation. Because of [Project Recover], that will never be forgotten.”– Doug Berglund
According to Scannon, Bush’s account of the mission, when the squadron bombed a primary target and Lt. Houle flew off ahead of the rest of his squadron after a secondary target before being shot down by enemy anti-aircraft guns, helped immensely in locating the general area where Lt. Houle’s plane went down. But that would only be part of the challenge in actually locating the plane.
“It’s ironic that the same year I gave [my grandmother] the shadowbox, Scannon was swimming in Palau, looking for him,” Berglund said.
It would be more than two decades of searching before a Scripps autonomous underwater vehicle located the wreckage of Lt. Houle’s plane in 2015, and another year before the wreckage would be formally documented.
Berglund’s mother would subsequently be contacted by the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) requesting a DNA sample, which would be used to identify Lt. Houle’s remains if and when they were eventually located, but the agency was prohibited from disclosing any information about Lt. Houle and the search for his remains to avoid getting families’ hopes up.
Berglund did some digging and eventually discovered the connection between Project Recover and the search for his great-uncle’s plane and contacted Scannon for the details.
“I was shell-shocked, dumbfounded,” Berglund said. “For [decades], they’d been trying to find a member of my family and I didn’t even know they were looking. Unfortunately, grandma died without knowing.”
Berglund’s grandmother had died in the intervening years, passing away at age 98 in July 2015, exactly 71 years to the date that her brother’s plane was shot down.
Project Recover and Scannon would eventually locate and confirm the remains of Lt. Houle’s crew members, Navy gunner Otis Ingram and Navy radioman Walter Mintus, and they were repatriated to the U.S. for a flag ceremony and burial.
But Lt. Houle remains missing.
Scannon would produce a report for Berglund and his family, who he described as “exceptional” for the “grace” with which they accepted the news that the plane had been found but Lt. Houle’s body had not.
He said an after-action report indicated a parachute was spotted after Lt. Houle’s plane went down, and it is almost certain it was he who ejected before his plane crashed. And he said an enemy vessel had been spotted picking up an American from the water around that time, and a subsequent interview with someone who had spoken with Palauan elders indicated that an American airman with the last name of Houle had been executed by enemy soldiers.
However, Scannon said that all still amounts to “speculation.”
Meanwhile, Scannon said the search for Ltn. Houle’s body continues despite the difficulty in locating a body in unmarked graves in the jungle, as well as Palauan cultural resistance to grave excavation. “We are actively looking for him,” he said.
The saga of Project Recover’s missions to find U.S. military aircraft and crew shot down in Palau during World War II is told in the documentary film entitled “To What Remains,” which features the search for Lt. Houle, his crew and his plane throughout. The documentary ends with a shot of Lt. Houle’s gravestone and is dedicated in part to his memory.
“He’s like the missing link that holds it all together,” Berglund said.
In all, Scannon said, Project Recover has located 50 aircraft crash sites associated with American military conflicts in 21 countries around the world, including 30 in Palau, and those are linked to more than 300 MIA U.S. military service members–70 of which have been declared as “buried at sea.” In all, there are more than 80,000 American MIAs still unaccounted for.
Berglund, who flies a POW/MIA flag over his home, said he keeps his uncle’s sacrifice in mind always.
“I think about the potential he had and the sacrifice he made,” he said. “I’m honored by his generation. Because of [Project Recover], that will never be forgotten.”