MIA for 72 years, St. Petersburg fighter pilot hero now rests at home

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) - Missing in action since June 6, 1944, the remains of a St. Petersburg pilot, found in the European field where he was shot down in World War II, are home.

The last leg of Lt. John Donald Mumford's final journey commenced Thursday with an escort from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

The World War II fighter pilot is now resting at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

"It's great to have him home," said nephew Ron Woolums.

Read: Lt. John Donald Mumford's identification summary

Donald, as he was called, grew up in St. Petersburg.

In 1943, he went off to war.

On D-Day 1944, as Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, Lt. Mumford was involved in a different mission on the other side of the continent.

The 325th Fighter Group was taking part in operation FRANTIC, a series of bombing raids on enemy targets in eastern Europe.  He was part of the 318th Fighter Squadron, which flew P-51 Mustangs to escort the B-17 Flying Fortresses.  On June 6, 1944 the mission was to bomb a German airfield in Romania.

Read: Medical examiner's summary report

Once the bombs were dropped and the aircraft turned to head to base, several German fighters attacked.

During the ensuing dogfight, Lt. Mumford became separated from the squadron.  Local farmers told U.S. Investigators they remembered several German aircraft pursuing an American fighter.  The U.S. aircraft, caught fire exploded and crashed, they told investigators.  It was Donald Mumford's plane.

The area in which he crashed, near the Ukraine, was controlled by Axis forces.  The Cold War then further stalled recovery efforts.

Last July, 72 years after the crash, a U.S-led team working with the Ukraine armed forces, excavated a field near what today is now known as the Moldova-Ukraine border.

The team discovered bone fragments, pieces of the P-51 and a 50-caliber machine gun.  The serial number on the gun matched the weapon on Lt. Mumford's aircraft.

They found Donald Mumford.

"First words out of my mouth were, 'you're kidding me,'" nephew Ron Woolums explained.

"To hear the news that my great uncle's remains have been found and then matched to my family was stunning, It's very shocking," added Erin Woolums-Meva, a great niece.

Donald's mother's questions about him lingered until her death.

"In my heart of hearts, I know she knows that Donald is home," said nephew Lynn Woolums.

At his funeral Thursday, many who didn't know him and are not related were there to welcome and honor Donald Mumford.

Several were struck by the fact the military found one of its own after 72 years.

"Every one of them needs to be honored and especially those who gave the ultimate sacrifice," said veteran Randall McNab, who was the Patriot Guard Riders captain for the funeral.

"The people here today are representative of what this country is all about," added former Marine Joe Brown.  "I'm a former Marine, and Marines don't let anyone come home without a welcome."

"That's very special to know that our country will not forget you," said veteran John Allan, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders.

The Army didn't forget Donald Mumford and America welcomed a hero who's long journey home is finally at an end.

"He's home," said Wollums.  "He made it, he's back home now."


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