Remains of Green Bay soldier lost in WWII returned, laid to rest
By Paul Srubas • psrubas@greenbaypressgazette • September 24, 2009
Sixty-six years after her brother disappeared while flying a World War II reconnaissance mission, Joyce Clark has gotten good at waiting and at not knowing.
That all changed this spring, when she learned the remains of the U.S. Army Air Corps lieutenant had been found and were going to be sent home to Green Bay.
"Those first few years, as long as the war was still going on, I think my family, my mother, my dad, my sister — we didn't talk about it much, but we all thought in the back of our minds, maybe they'll find the plane," said Clark, now 81. "But after five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years go by, you figure, well, this is it; he's missing and that's the end of it.
"But then, to have all this thrown back on you. It's something else again."
Lt. Robert Streckenbach Jr., 21, was a navigator flying a reconnaissance mission over Papua New Guinea with 10 other people when their plane disappeared in a storm Nov. 20, 1943.
Clark was 15 at the time, but "I can see it like it was yesterday," she said. "It was on a Saturday. I was still in bed, hadn't gotten up yet. I remember hearing someone knock at the door, and my mother went to the door, and I heard her say, 'Oh, my God.'
"It was someone with the telegram, saying he was missing in action."
The Army would give it another year and one day before declaring Streckenbach "presumed dead." With the war continuing, his family assumed someone would spot the plane wreckage and that the remains would show up.
"But through the intervening years, for 60 years, we didn't hear anything," Clark said. "All these years went by — nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. We just assumed that was it, that he was missing and that's it.
"My parents passed away, my sister passed away. I'm the only one left."
Then, five years ago, she was contacted by a genealogical organization that the Army had hired to track down family members of those killed in the plane crash.
They contacted me and said yes, they had identified the airplane and could they come and take a DNA sample, because there were remains that had been found."
Someone spotted just part of a left wing of the aircraft, all that was left after the plane crashed into a mountainside. Landslides had obscured the crash site.
Salvage workers discovered that native islanders had moved most of the human remains to another site, but the islanders turned them over.
All that was positively identified as Streckenbach's was a single bone fragment, which tested as a positive match to Clark's DNA. That information came out after a five-year delay.
"The DNA samples are sent to a lab in Hawaii … you can imagine, through Vietnam, Korea and even Afghanistan, there were some things that probably had more priority," Clark said. "If you get the remains of someone presumed dead for five months, you're going to want to identify it before you identify someone missing for 60 years."
Clark has nothing but good things to say about the Army, which has assigned her a casualty assistance officer and an honor guard to accompany her brother's remains to their final resting place at Fort Howard Cemetery.
Steckenbach was buried Wednesday, and Clark is glad the ordeal is over.
"It's been quite a summer for me, and I'm not a young chicken anymore," she said. "I'll be happy to be back in my own little world."
The Army gave her Streckenbach's dog tags, and she fondled the one that she keeps in her pocket as she talked.
"The first night I got it, I put it inside my pillow case," she said. "I just felt I had to be close to him in some way. Now I just keep it in my pocket.
"I'm just glad he's home now," she said. "You know, we had our mourning period within the first year, the first two years. Now it's happy. It's sad, but it's happy, also. I've done all my mourning, but still certain things will touch me, and I'll start bawling like a baby, but it's mostly happy."