Lt. John J. Heffernan, a long-missing casualty of World War II, finally came back to America on Tuesday.
Nearly 80 years after perishing in a fiery crash in Burma when Japanese forces shot down his B-25G bomber, Heffernan’s remains were brought back to New Jersey on an early-morning flight that landed at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Since his death on Feb. 22, 1944, Heffernan, 24, a U.S. Army Air Corps navigator who hoped to become a physician if he survived the war, had been considered missing and presumed dead by the Pentagon. His remains were not found and identified until last year.
For years, Heffernan’s family pleaded with U.S. military authorities to find his body. But various leaders in politically volatile Burma, now known as Myanmar, blocked U.S. efforts to find Heffernan’s remains along with those of six other crew members who died with him.
Mike Kelly exclusive:After eight decades, a lost soldier finally returns home
Last year, a special U.S. military search team that travels the world in search of the nearly 80,000 unaccounted American war dead since World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts was allowed into Myanmar and found Heffernan’s remains — several teeth, a shoulder bone and skull fragments. The tiny pieces, dug up from under nearly 10 feet of mud in a peanut farm field, were then transported to a military morgue in Hawaii and identified with DNA samples from Heffernan’s nephew, Andrew McVeigh, who lives in Oakland.
The search for Heffernan’s body was chronicled exclusively by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network.
McVeigh, 72, is now planning a funeral with military honors for the uncle he never met.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Army honor guard carried Heffernan’s flag-draped coffin from a United Airlines commercial flight from Hawaii that landed at Newark Liberty International Airport just after dawn. Baggage handlers removed their hats in respect, and a contingent of more than a dozen New Jersey State Police troopers and Port Authority police officers stood at attention in a line.
After being placed in a hearse, the coffin was escorted by police to Feeney Funeral Home in Ridgewood.
The airport arrival and the honor guard ceremony are the first of what will be nearly a week of tributes for the World War II veteran.
Wake and funeral information
A wake is scheduled at Feeney on Friday, from 4 to 8 p.m.
Heffernan’s funeral Mass will take place on Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church in Wyckoff. The mass will be livestreamed on the church’s website: saintelizabeths.org/live-streaming.
After the Mass, Heffernan’s coffin is slated to be escorted by veterans on motorcycles and police across the George Washington Bridge to Queens for burial in a plot with his mother.
Stay tuned to NorthJersey.com for coverage of Heffernan’s funeral.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.