Early on the morning of Aug. 1, 1943, Staff Sgt. Donald Robert Duchene boarded his hulking B-24 Liberator at an airfield in Libya and flew over the Mediterranean Sea.
Duchene, a 19-year-old from the East Side of St. Paul who'd dropped out of high school and later joined the United States Army Air Forces, was a tail gunner for one of the 177 B-24s involved in that day's strategic bombing mission. The 1,725-member American aircrews would be flying low over Ploiești, Romania, a hub of Axis powers oil production, to bomb the area's nine oil refineries. The vital mission attempted to knock out what was known as "Hitler's gas station."
Along with 224 others, Duchene never made it back, according to U.S. government figures. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed, one of 51 aircraft lost on "Bloody Sunday," one of the costliest Allied air engagements of World War II.
On Friday evening — 28,915 days after Duchene's death — Marion Nordin, Duchene's little sister, now 89 years old and the only living person to have known him, stood next to a white hearse on the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. A lifetime had passed since Nordin, then 9, learned of her brother's death.
A Southwest Airlines passenger jet containing her brother's remains taxied toward her and the Honor Guard that awaited. A rainbow beamed overhead. Nordin's daughter, Diane Erickson of Forest Lake, put a hand on her mother's shoulder.
"At first it was a bit abstract, because I never knew him," Erickson said of her mother's brother, the uncle she never met. "Now it's becoming more of a reality."
The Minnesota airman's journey home since his combat death has been 79 years coming.
After the war, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred American remains from a cemetery in Romania where soldiers from the mission had been buried. Some 80 service members' remains, including Duchene's, couldn't be identified and were permanently interred at two American cemeteries in Belgium. In 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began to exhume remains of unknown servicemen believed to be from Operation Tidal Wave and sent them to its laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.
Scientists used anthropological and dental analysis, circumstantial evidence and DNA analysis to identify Duchene's remains, officially accounted for this summer.
Chris Van Hofwegen, a retired major who served as the military funeral honors state coordinator for the Minnesota National Guard, said the commitment to bringing fallen soldiers back to their families goes back to the ancient Greeks. But, he said, no military does it on the scale of America's.
"You can't leave those chapters open," Van Hofwegen said. "People need to have that closure."
Sgt. First Class Sean Everette, a spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said: "It's a moral imperative for us to recover these service members. They made their oaths to the U.S., and we have a similar oath to make sure they come home."
Duchene is one of 165 missing service members from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War accounted for this fiscal year, which ended Friday. Just this week, another service member's recently identified remains arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport: Melvin Little Bear, a South Dakotan who died more than 70 years ago while a prisoner of war in Korea.
On Friday evening, six soldiers received Duchene's flag-draped silver casket from the airplane's baggage conveyor belt and marched it to the hearse. Nordin touched two fingers to her lips. She leaned against her walker, one daughter on each side. The pilot of the Southwest flight hugged her, as did a military escort from Fort Riley, Kan.
The family followed the hearse off the tarmac, where a chaplain said a prayer. Nordin laid her hands on the coffin and made the sign of the cross, then the family followed the hearse to the funeral home.
Jean Cheshire, 58 of Hinckley and another of Duchene's nieces, wiped tears and hugged her mother. She remembers growing up and always feeling a missing presence, whether at family get-togethers or when her father, also a World War II veteran, took her to the VFW.
"You always knew you had an uncle that was missing — like, 'Here's all my uncles except this one,' " Cheshire said. "This takes you back through a whole life without him. It's just unbelievable thankfulness for the military and what they do. There's so much they do we don't understand. They don't leave anyone behind. They're bringing him back so we can have closure."
The family of Donald Duchene will hold a memorial service Wednesday, Oct. 5, that will be open to the public. A viewing at 10 a.m. at Holcomb-Henry-Boom-Purcell Funeral Home in Shoreview will be followed by a memorial service at 11 a.m. Burial will be 1 p.m. at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.