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SALT LAKE CITY — Roughly 150 distant relatives crowded into five buses at Salt Lake City International Airport to welcome home a man they had never met.
They lined both sides of the airport runway and watched as a commercial airliner touched down and passed under a water cannon salute.
The remains of U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird, who had been missing in action since 1944, returned home Wednesday.
Bird is one of the 189 World War II veterans located by the Department of Defense's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office nationwide since 2007.
Great-niece Lorna Snyder grew up hearing stories about her great-uncle as a child, but it wasn't until she moved into her mother's home more than 10 years ago and read the letters Bird had sent that she began to search in earnest for her missing relative.
"I did it because I knew how much my parents loved him and the love translated through all of us kids," Snyder said.
Bird piloted a A-20G Havoc bomber as part of the 5th Air Force, 3rd Bombardment Group, 13th Bombardment Squadron. On March 12, 1944, he flew in a bombing mission to strike the Japanese Air Force base in Boram, Papua New Guinea. He was only 25-years-old when he and a gunner in the plane went missing that day.
Some family members said they thought his plane went down over the ocean, but Snyder did not agree.
"I just thought, 'He's gotta be somewhere. The plane's gotta be somewhere,'" she said.
Snyder began attending meetings held by the Department of Defense and convinced Bird's sister, Elaine Jack, 92, to provide a DNA sample. The department's Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office gives monthly updates in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country on the more than 83,000 missing U.S. service members.
A breakdown by state is not available for World War II, but more than 73,000 veterans nationwide are still missing.
In 2001, members of the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command found Lt. Bird's plane during the excavation of another downed plane. His remains were identified through DNA testing on Aug. 28, 2013.
I just thought, 'He's gotta be somewhere. The plane's gotta be somewhere.'
–great-niece Lorna Snyder
Back in Salt Lake City, people crowded by terminal windows inside to watch as a military escort brought the casket draped in an American flag from the airplane to a waiting hearse.
Snyder wore her great-uncle's dog tags and held a small American flag, snapping pictures throughout the event. Her husband, Ken, held her and wiped tears from his eyes after the coffin was loaded into the hearse.
"It's triumphant," Snyder said. "I think that my feeling is we did it. You know, Vernal on the other side and us on this side, we did it. We got him back."
Bird's casket was driven in a procession down to his native Springville. Flags to commemorate his arrival will fly on Springville's Main Street through Saturday.
Bird will be honored in a memorial service from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Saturday at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse at 1295 E. 900 South, just east of Springville High School.
Contributing: Keith McCord