44th FS commander accompanies predecessor on final journey

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs
In the middle of a dense jungle on Guadalcanal Island, a farmer made a startling discovery -- the wreckage of a World War II-era U.S. Army Air Forces P-38 Lightning wreckage upside-down in the swamp.

Upon closer inspection by a Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command team in 2013, the remains of then USAAF Maj. Peyton S. Mathis, Jr., were discovered.

It has been 70 years since Mathis paid the ultimate price when engine failure just before landing at Kukum Air Field on the island rolled the aircraft and led it to crash into the swamp. Though rescue teams attempted immediate recovery of the former 44th Fighter Squadron commander, seven feet of water concealed the cockpit and prevented access.

The pilot was determined killed in action June 5, 1944, and his body remained unrecovered since the war -- that is, until JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory officially identified his remains Oct. 16, 2014. After a long journey home, Mathis was finally laid to rest with an internment ceremony in Montgomery, Ala., Jan. 3.

Lt. Col. Michael Rowe, the current 44th FS commander, said ensuring events like these come to fruition is the United States' continued promise to everyone who has ever served.

"I think it's a phenomenal story," Rowe said. "We say this, that we never leave someone behind, but we're probably the only military I know of that continues to do JPAC and the incredible work they do to go out and make that a reality. The fact that 70 years ago he perished, and we were able to bring him home, is a significant story both for the U.S. military and for individuals who serve because it's a reminder that we will always do what we can to bring you home."

But Mathis' remains weren't just a package sent from overseas, and therefore, they weren't treated as such.

Accompanied by a U.S. Army major, the fallen commander arrived at Birmingham, Ala., from Hawaii where they were greeted by pristine honor guardsmen before beginning the long road home to his final resting place in Montgomery.

Police led the way; fire and police departments from the towns along the way saluted and paid their own respects from overpasses; Patriot Guard members, who began with about 30 escorts, increased in numbers as the trip progressed to Montgomery, where Mathis was buried Jan. 3.

Though the completion of this Airman's final journey spins an incredible tale, what makes the story special lies with the legacy his former squadron continues.

Rowe honored that heritage by not only attending the ceremony but also by presenting the American flag to the family.

What began with an e-mail out of the blue at the end of 2014, ultimately led to an experience not unheard of for Rowe, but nonetheless unexpected.

"It was a total surprise," he said. "Up until then, I had no idea that was going on. I just think there was a lot of pride in the fact that there was a successful recovery operation and that he was coming home, and also a lot of empathy and excitement for the family who waited 70 years. It was something they had hoped for, prayed for, wished for ... and it was finally going to happen. His wife, his widow, was still around, alive and able to know the outcome."

Though his widow was unable to make it to the ceremony due to age and travel concerns, Rowe then spent more than two hours getting to know each of Mathis' family members in attendance.

Along with the flag, Rowe presented a piece of the Vampire Bats -- a lithograph depicting an F-15 Eagle in combat alongside a P-38, overlooked by a vampire bat -- as a symbol that his legacy lived on within the squadron even after his passing.

The picture, which is given as a going-away gift to all 44th FS members who leave the unit, was signed by every pilot who currently calls themselves a Vampire Bat in honor of his heritage and legacy.

"It was an awesome opportunity as the current squadron commander to be able to pay my personal respects and [those] of the squadron to one of our own," Rowe said. "It was extremely humbling that I was able to participate in the service. It made me proud to be a Vampire Bat. It was very, very satisfying for me to have that opportunity."

The 44th's heritage extends beyond the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, where two of its pilots lost their lives bravely defending the island.

Mathis' nephew, Peyton, has commissioned an oil painting of the P-38 circling the air field at Guadalcanal as a final tribute. The painting will go on to commemorate his service in the halls of the squadron.

Mathis will go on unforgotten, as the current unit's members honor their history every week, including him along with the others who lost their lives in service of the U.S. under the 44th.

"He will definitely not be forgotten in the Vampire Bats," Rowe said.