Fallen World War II pilot to be remembered

The remains of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. James H. Marrah will be buried in Kirkwood Cemetery, London, on May 25. Marrah was the co-pilot of a B-24 bomber plane that crashed due to enemy fire on Aug. 1, 1943, over Romania. His remains were identified and accounted for in August 2023.

(Posted May 15, 2024)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

At long last, the family of U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. James H. Marrah has closure.

Nearly 81 years ago, Marrah’s plane went down over Romania during a bombing mission in World War II. It wasn’t until this past August that the London man’s remains were identified and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) marked him as accounted for. His remains will be laid to rest in London on Saturday, May 25.

For James P. Swyers, one of Marrah’s nephews, the closure brings with it a feeling of release.

“My grandmother (Elizabeth, Marrah’s mother) tried for 20 years after his plane went down to find out if he was alive or not and, if not, to return his remains,” Swyers said. “She kept the door unlocked in her house, hoping he would come home. She kept that going forever, and it was drilled into us grandkids to do the same.”

Swyers was born in 1949, six years after his uncle was declared missing in action. While he never got to meet the man for whom he is named, Swyers got to know him through the stories his mother, grandmother, and other relatives would tell.

“He joined the military because he wanted to learn to fly,” he said. “He really wanted to be a fighter pilot, but he was too tall. He was 6-1, 182 pounds. Fighter pilots had to be 5-10 or under.”

The family has letters Marrah sent to his mother in which he describes his adventures in the military, including the acrobatic moves they had him and his fellow pilots doing in the heavy bombers.

Marrah received his wings and commission at Lubbock Field, Texas, on March 20, 1943. He married Kathleen Tope of Springfield on May 26 during a short leave.

That summer, he was serving with the 415th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 9th Air Force. On Aug. 1, the B-24 Liberator aircraft on which Marrah was a co-pilot crashed as a result of enemy anti-aircraft fire during Operation TIDAL WAVE, the largest bombing mission against the oil fields and refineries at Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, Romania. Marrah was 22 years old.

“They were flying to bomb at 200 feet, got hit by some flak in the bomb bay which set a gas tank on fire, setting the whole middle of the plane on fire. Why they were flying that low, I don’t know,” Swyers said.

Of the 177 bombers involved in the raid, Marrah’s plane was one of 51 that failed to return. The mission succeeded in damaging the oil refineries but at the cost of hundreds of U.S. airmen’s lives. Only three of the 10 airmen aboard Marrah’s plane survived. In 1999, two of Marrah’s brothers talked to one of the survivors and got his recollections on tape.

Marrah’s remains were not identified following the war. Remains that could not be identified were buried as “unknowns” in the hero section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania.

A collection of memorabilia about James H. Marrah includes: (clockwise from top left) a photo of the plane he co-piloted; his Purple Heart certificate; a photo of him in civilian clothes; a copy of one of the many letters his mother wrote to the military in her attempts to find out if he was alive or dead; letters Marrah wrote to family back home plus a letter from a friend that was scheduled to be delivered the day Marrah’s plane went down; and a photo of Marrah in his pilot’s uniform.

Following the war, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC), the organization that searched for and recovered fallen American personnel, disinterred all American remains from the Bolovan Cemetery for identification. The AGRC was unable to identify more than 80 unknowns from Bolovan Cemetery, and those remains were then interred at Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, both in Belgium.

In 2017, DPAA began exhuming unknowns believed to be associated with unaccounted-for airmen from Operation TIDAL WAVE losses. These remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory for examination and identification.

To identify Marrah’s remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used DNA analysis. Swyers, Marrah’s sister Florence (Swyers’s mother), and one of Marrah’s brothers, Richard, had contributed DNA samples for testing. Florence’s DNA was a strong match, helping to make the positive identification.

Marrah was deemed accounted for on Aug. 3, 2023, almost 80 years to the day his plane went down. Earlier this year, DPAA representatives arranged for a Zoom call with many of Marrah’s relatives during which they shared their findings, explained their process, and asked the family their wishes for burial of the remains.

“He could have been buried at Arlington Cemetery (in Arlington, Virginia) where his brother, John, is buried, but we decided to keep him local He will be buried next to his mother and sister,” Swyers said.

Arrangements have been made to fly Marrah’s remains to the Columbus, Ohio, airport on May 17. The estimated arrival time is 5:05 p.m. Lynch Family Funeral Home will transport the casket from the airport to the funeral home in London.

Calling hours are set for 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. May 25 at the London Community Center, 60 S. Walnut St., London., with the service immediately following. Todd Marrah, one of Marrah’s nephews, will officiate. The service is open to the public. Burial will follow in Kirkwood Cemetery, London. (Click here for the full obituary.)

Swyers, who lives in London, said nearly 60 relatives from around the country plan to be present. Among them are his brother, Tom, who lives in Newport, and his sister, Melissa, who lives just outside of London, both in Madison County.

Barb Lynch said she has received many calls at the funeral home from veterans organizations and other groups that plan to send representatives to the services.

“I’m glad I was still alive when this happened. He was my namesake,” Swyers said, adding that he wishes it had been possible when Marrah’s older relatives were still alive, especially his mother.

“Hopefully, when she passed on, if religion is right, she got to see her son again,” Swyers said.

The Department of the Army bestowed awards and decorations to Marrah posthumously, including the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He also earned the American Defense Service Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three Bronze Service Stars, World War II Victory Medal, Presidential Unit Citation with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, and U.S. Army Air Force Pilot Wings.

Marrah’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Impruneta, Italy, along with others still missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

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