SPRINGVILLE — There was something special about U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird.
That lasting impact was apparent by the hundreds who turned out for the airman's funeral on Saturday, even though he hadn't been heard from since 1944.
"He must have had a tremendous impact on us," said Phil Bird, a nephew who conducted the services. "So many of us continue to talk about him and would not let his spirit die. How grateful we are to finally resolve the riddle of Uncle Vernal."
It was always assumed that the airman's body was lost at sea — missing in action — perhaps the result of one of his many missions in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
"I always knew my uncle was lost. We grew up with pictures of him around the house and everyone talked about him. We all knew that we didn't know where he was," said Lorna Snyder, Vernal Bird's niece. It was her curiosity that led to the identification of her uncle's remains — a leg bone found amid wreckage in the Prince Alexander Range of Papua New Guinea.
A native of the island country first happened upon the crash site and informed officials of its location in 2001. Years later, while searching the Internet for information, Snyder realized that familial DNA could be used to determine whether the government had found her missing uncle.
Nearly a decade later, in August, the family received word that officials had confirmed a match. Arrangements to bring the airman home, to a final resting place at the Springville Evergreen Cemetery, followed.
Many proud relatives and friends attended the arrival of Vernal Bird's remains at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday. And even more, including strangers and a couple of motorcycle brigades that make it their charge to honor veterans, attended the funeral services, celebrating a deep sense of patriotism the soldier is believed to have had.
"This shows that people are still in love with America and that's what he stood for," said a distant relative, Earl Jeppson. "It's a story of liberty. It's a story of family. And it's a story of love."
More than 69 years after they believed he went missing in shark-infested waters, the young, "vibrant," "kind and generous" soldier was laid to rest.
Vernal Bird grew up teasing his sister, Elaine Bird Jack, who is the only member of a large immediate family still alive. She has often recounted stories of their youth, when her brother cared for his treasured pet goats and would buy her new dresses and help support the family with his meager construction work paycheck when times were tough.
They never quit thinking of him.
Vernal Bird's A-20G Havoc bomber was one of 40 planes, all part of the "Aces of the South Pacific," that participated in a March 12, 1944 air strike on Japanese forces in the Papuan area.
While the details of his last flight remain unavailable, Snyder said, "we're on the trail." She anticipates more information as the site near Wewap is excavated.
Vernal Bird is one of 189 WWII veterans located by the Department of Defense's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office since 2007. More than 73,000 men and women are still missing from fateful war missions throughout the years.
"There are so many remains at Hickam Field (Hawaii). Families have to be aware, they need DNA from the mother line to be able to identify them," Snyder said.
In his last letter, the young Vernal Bird told his mother that he was looking forward to coming home.
"It took 69 years, but we are very, very grateful he made it," Carma Duncan, another of the soldier's nieces, said Saturday.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: wendyleonards
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company