by Anabel Lee, Palo Alto Weekly editorial intern
As a teenager growing up in Palo Alto in the 1940s, June Robertson often daydreamed about the moment her big brother, John Austin Widsteen, would return home from WWII. Robertson often had such daydreams while watching old Danny Kaye films because "his humor was like my brother's," she said.
Friday, more than 60 years after his B-24J Liberator crashed into the jungles of Papua New Guinea in 1944, Second Lt. Widsteen finally came home. He was buried with full military honors in Palo Alto.
In April, the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office announced that the remains of the 11 American airmen aboard the B-24J Liberator had been identified. The group remains of the entire crew were buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the exception of three, including Widsteen, whose families elected hometown burials. Friday Widsteen was interred beside his mother, Beulah Widsteen, in Alta Mesa Cemetery.
"In my religious philosophy, spirits go on, and I thought it would be an honor to him and to her to have them together again," said Robertson, now a resident of Utah. "I wanted to bring him home to have him next to my mother because she felt he was so special."
When their father died of pneumonia, Widsteen had to fill his shoes at the age of 11, during some of the bleakest years of the Great Depression. The oldest of three children, Widsteen had two younger sisters: Evelyn Arceneaux, who died two years ago, and Robertson. Robertson said that in 1932 there were few ways to raise money, so Widsteen took on odd jobs -- raising and selling rabbits, selling eggs and delivering telegrams for Western Union around the city -- to help the family. He was also handy and could repair anything around the house.
Widsteen attended Palo Alto High School, where he had a dance band and was known by his school friends as Austin or Aussie. Robertson remembers Widsteen as a fun-loving, humorous and thoughtful boy: "He was a fun person. I can remember him having arguments with my mother about staying out late, but he would always peek around the corner and ask, 'Are you still mad at me, Ma?'
"I just idolized him. If we had dessert he got the biggest piece -- not because he demanded it, but because I thought he was special."
After graduating from high school, Widsteen held a job doing sheet metal work in Los Altos. He soon wanted a change of pace and scenery and in January 1941 enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. That spring, he left for the South West Pacific Theater of the Second World War.
Even from halfway across the world, Widsteen steadfastly looked after his family, Robertson said. During the war, he sent money home every month to help support his mother.
There was also the exchange of letters. When Robertson once told her brother about a sweater she was trying to save up for, his next letter included some money for her to buy it. He also sent her charms for her charm bracelet. And when Arceneaux was about to get married, Widsteen wrote "real sweet letters" that, in good older brother fashion, inquired whether the boy in question was kind and respectful.
On April 16, 1944, the B-24J Liberator Widsteen was co-piloting with Capt. Thomas Paschal was one of the 300 aircrafts returning to Nadzab, New Guinea, from the successful completion of a mission to bomb Japanese airfields in Hollandia, now Jayapura in Indonesia. The plane was last seen flying into a severe storm that ultimately claimed the lives of 54 crew members and 37 planes, according to the Department of Defense. It was the Air Force's greatest non-combat aviation loss in WWII.
When the news of Widsteen's disappearance reached the family, Robertson remembers being most concerned for her mother.
"I just felt so bad. She just about fell apart," said Robertson. "The fact that my father died when my brother was 11, and then having my brother die 11 years later was devastating for her as a mother and a wife." Initially, the family was told that Widsteen was considered missing in action. Two years later the government decided he was dead.
However, some sense of certainty about what had happened to Widsteen started coming to light when in March 2001 the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) was informed that a native villager who had been hunting wallaby in the Morobe province of Papua New Guinea found the wreck. The CILHI identified the tags as belonging to two of the airmen on Widsteen's aircraft. During 2002, CILHI recovery teams excavated the crash site and collected remains, which were later repatriated to the United States.
"I felt someone socked me in the stomach," Robertson said of first hearing, nearly 60 years after the crash, that her brother had been found and identified. Widsteen was identified by tests that used Arceneaux's DNA. The families of the 11 airmen were all given booklets more than an inch thick detailing the research that had been done around the wreck.
Robertson's daughter, Redwood City resident Lisa Drakos, who has a son named for Widsteen, said that the news brought "some relief because he had been found; dead or alive, he had been found."
Both Robertson and Drakos attended the ceremony in Arlington in April, where Drakos said there had been a general sense of enlightenment because families finally knew what had happened to their soldiers.
She added: "The army did everything they could to bring these men home. They never gave up looking for them; they never wanted to stop looking for them."