ARLINGTON, VA (WTOL)
This 71-year journey began in 1945. Big Band is playing on the radio and World War II is months from ending.
Two of the Beals siblings from South Dakota are serving in the United States Army, including Meryl as a nurse and her little brother Don.
In April, Meryl was furloughed.
During her time off, she decided to visit Don, who is serving with the 48th Fighter-Bomber Group, 494th Squadron. Meryl's flight was delayed and she missed her brother, never to see him again.
To reconstruct the timeline of events around First Lieutenant Donald L. Beal’s death and the seven decade search for his remains, WTOL 11 News reviews the entire U.S. Department of Defense file, as well as the family history and pictures.
On April 17th, 1945, Lieutenant Beals and First Lieutenant Hobart M. Albright take off in their P-47 Thunderbolts from Kassel-Rothwesten Airfield, recently seized by the Allies.
On a reconnaissance mission, they spot German targets then dive to destroy them. Instead, they are met by heavy enemy gun fire.
“Pull up Beals, it isn’t worth it,” orders Lieutenant Hobart, according to one of the Army casualty reports. But Lieutenant Beals does not hear this command because he had been hit, and his plane crashed near Lonnewitz, Germany. At first he’s classified as missing, then killed in action.
As Meryl celebrated major life milestones, the world marked major events in history.
She moved to Toledo after marrying fellow service member Doug Tabner Sr., who later became WTOL’s First Sport Director. She raised four kids in Ohio.
The crash site near Lonnewitz became part of communist East Germany. This geopolitical transition slowed down the search for Lieutenant Beals.
Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, soon followed by the collapse of the communist Iron Curtain. Throughout it all, Meryl never stopped looking for her little brother.
Over the decades, technology improved, including forensic science, which has a revolutionary impact on the recovery of missing persons.
In 2014, the military calls Meryl, requesting a DNA sample.
A new crash site was discovered that contained shards of a life, including glass from a pair of spectacles, a piece of a heel, ripped fabric from a sweater, and bone fragments from a skull and arm that match Meryl’s DNA.
Seven decades later, Meryl got the call for which she had waited a lifetime. Her “kid” brother, as she called him, was found and was finally coming home.
WTOL was there as the family of Lieutenant Beals arrived at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia with the exception of Meryl, who passed away just weeks after learning the search for her brother was over.
“Let’s get there and get him honored and lay him to rest,” said nephew Doug Tabner, Junior and Meryl’s son from Toledo.
Some journey from France and California, including Lieutenant Beals’ nephew, designated next of kin and namesake Don.
"He got the distinguished flying cross. Also I have all the artifacts, coins, his rusted foot locker, his actual dog tags," revealed Don Beals about the personal belongings recovered from the crash site.
At the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, a full honors military funeral service for Lieutenant Beals and his family, including a horse drawn caisson, a gun salute, as well as soldiers and Patriot Guard Riders standing at attention.
The orchestration of centuries-old military ritual recognizes the solemnity of the ultimate sacrifice made by a man who formed part of the generation known as the "Greatest," every day fewer in number.
But this moment is also for his family, who waited nearly three-quarters of a century to say, "Welcome Home," and "Rest in peace."
"It came out of nowhere for us and really provided the closure which we didn't even know we needed," said Charlie, another nephew of Lieutenant Beals.
As Lieutenant Beals’ family turns the page on this chapter that became woven in to American history, they hope their story gives strength to other military families waiting for their loved ones to be found.
"Don't give up hope," said Charlie Beals. “There's someone out there looking for you."