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Missing no more: Remains of WWII soldier found on Guadalcanal

The story of Dale W. Ross has been told in the family for 75 years, ever since he was declared missing in action Jan. 14, 1943, in World War II's fiercely fought battle of Guadalcanal.

A graduate of Ashland High School, like his three brothers, he was only 22 when, serving as a runner between command posts, he was killed by Japanese forces.

The battlefield, called Hill 27, was taken by the Americans — and his fellow soldiers searched for him, but found no trace. Even his brother, Ervin, serving on a nearby Navy PT boat, heard of Dale's disappearance and went to the island to search, but couldn’t find him.

The mystery appears to have been solved recently when an 8-year-old native boy saw something shiny sticking out of a worn path kids used to get to a waterfall. It was a pair of Army dog tags on a key chain with a good luck charm made of a flattened penny. Further digging revealed some 50 bones, including ribs.

The father of the boy who found them showed the remains and tags to a New York woman, Donna Esposito, who was visiting for the anniversary of the bloody six-month battle. The artifacts found their way to a military lab in Hawaii, which is doing a DNA test.

When the children of Ross' brothers, now senior citizens, got the news that remains of their Uncle Dale likely had been found, they were touched — and amazed that a longtime family mystery had been solved.

“I don’t know how to put it in words, to be honest,” says his niece Vicki Plankenhorn of Talent. “Gosh, it’s something you hope for, even though I didn’t know him personally. ... it’s kind of overwhelming, very emotional.

"His mother (Mabel Ross) prayed for that to be the case her whole life. To know he’s going to be coming home to be with his brothers and mom, it’s almost surreal.”

Once the DNA is matched, the remains will be sent here to be buried with family, she says.

“Uncle Dale was definitely part of our family,” says Jerry Ross, 63, of Grants Pass. “I heard of him all my life, especially when my dad (Ervin Ross) was alive. My dad said Dale was a message runner in a communications company. He could run like a deer. They were taking fire. Dad said the runner assigned was married with a child, so Dale volunteered to take his place. It was a pretty dangerous mission. Dad was pretty sure Dale ran into a Japanese patrol and they killed him. Dad talked to members of his outfit, and that’s the story we got.”

Running was central to Dale’s life. He was known to go camping with the family at Howard Prairie, and then run all the way to Ashland, beating the family in their car, says Peggy Freitas, 68, of Ashland, his niece.

“I was overjoyed with the news,” says Peggy. “Dad talked a lot about his brother Dale. He was always a hero in our family. We thought he was possibly captured, tortured, put in a prison camp, so it was a big relief that didn’t happen.”

How the dog tags found their way to the family is a convoluted tale. Donna Esposito searched the Ross name in Ashland, eventually connecting with the younger Dale Ross, nephew and namesake of the missing soldier. He contacted his sister Vicki, who became the leader of the effort. Esposito also connected with Justin Taylan, founder of Pacific Wrecks, a nonprofit that searches for American MIAs of World War II’s Pacific theater.

The nephew Dale, 71, of Ashland, son of the PT boat sailor, initially was concerned it could be a scam, but as he and other kin got more and more calls over a month, “I got a little excited."

"It’s quite a big deal for us," he said. "I was happy to learn what actually happened. We had doubts if maybe he was captured or drug off somewhere, but he was found right where he was last seen. They were in a fire fight in close quarters, face-to-face. The battle kept going on. A minute after he left (on his message run), they heard shots from that direction, but they didn’t find him. People went back in 1949 to search but found nothing.”

Esposito and Taylan, who knows the culture and language of the island, invited Freitas and Dale Ross on the trip to Guadalcanal. They walked in the canyon where their uncle was killed, then went to the tiny village. The island boy’s father, Henry Davis, had protected the effects, preventing his son, Willie Bessi Davis, from selling the tags “for a few bucks” at a flea market.

“It was very much the Third World, thatched huts, no electricity, running water or glass windows. The village (Barana) is right near where he died. They brought the remains out in a Ziploc bag,” said Plankenhorn, holding back tears. “It was just fragments, very deteriorated, as you can imagine. It was very emotional. It brings closure. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Once retrieved, the remains and tags were turned over to the Defense Department’s Office of Casualty and Mortuary, which further searched the discovery area and flew the remains to Hawaii on a military plane for testing.

There are multiple local connections in the story. Plankenhorn said Becky DeBoer, wife of state Sen. Alan DeBoer, is the granddaughter of soldier Dale's mother's brother.

Guadalcanal was a huge Allied invasion, running from August 1942 to February 1943, with 60,000 infantrymen, of whom 7,100 were killed. The battle also claimed the lives of 19,200 Japanese. It was vital as an airfield site for launching attacks on Japan and to keep Japanese forces from cutting off Allied supplies and communication.

The Office of Casualty and Mortuary asked the younger Dale for some DNA so they could make the final identification. However, he and other relatives say that, given the proximity of tags and bones, they have no doubt it is the late Dale.

Dale Ross, his brothers and parents came to Ashland from North Dakota in about 1929. They all worked in carpentry, house repair and building in the mid-20th century. Peggy said Dale was engaged when he enlisted in 1942. His fiancee was Betty Dawson, the daughter of Ben Dawson, a pioneer family in Ashland.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

(Aug. 26: Story updated to correct Pfc. Dale W. Ross' age when he died, the spelling of the name of the village near which the dog tags and remains were found and and the spelling of the name of the boy who found them.)