On August 1, 1943, during Operation Tidal Wave, Zelwood’s plane went down. He was listed as missing in action.
For nearly eighty years his family has been trying to find him and bring him home. Today, November 12, 2022, that mission was finally accomplished.
Zelwood, a New Vineyard native, was living in Connecticut when he entered the U.S. Army Air Forces. He served in the 343rd Bombardment Squardon, 98th Bombardment Group, where he was a gunner on one of 51 planes that failed to return from Operation Tidal Wave.
This operation cost of the lives of hundreds of USAAF service members. Many of them were interred in the Bolivian Cemetery in Romania; in 2017, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began exhuming the remains for DNA testing in an effort to bring home these missing soldiers.
Sue White, Zelwood’s great-niece and spokesperson for the family, said she never knew Zelwood. She grew up hearing about him, and her father continued the family’s search to find him.
Before her father’s death, Sue said, he asked her to keep it going. For the last twenty years she has researched, written letters, and held ongoing communication with the DPAA and other military agencies in an effort to find Zelwood and bring him home.
In July 2022, Sue got the phone call.
“We found him.”
At first, she thought they were joking. The truth was, after nearly eighty years of searching and hoping, Zelwood had been found and would be coming home.
A service was held at the Phillips Area Community Center this morning, followed by interment at the Mile Square Cemetery in Avon, next to his mother and sister. Over 120 people attended the services, including elected officials, members of the 343rd Squadron, members of the American Legion Posts 28, 61, and 64 and the Jay VFW Post 3335, and local veterans.
This morning, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office escorted Zelwood from the funeral home in Farmington to the PACC. Sue carried his remains into the PACC; while it was an intensely emotional and bittersweet moment for her, she said it was her honor. “I walked him home.”
Zelwood received full military honors, including a 21-gun salute and flag-folding ceremony from the Maine National Guard, and posting of the colors by the Farmington Post 28 Color Guard. General Douglas Farnum, Adjutant General of the Maine National Guard, spoke and presented the family with awards from the State of Maine.
Lt. Colonel Gregory Watson, U.S. Air Force, Commander of the 343rd Bombardment Squadron, presented the family with the Purple Heart and other items, including a plaque of remembrance and the squadron patch, which still bears the center insignia worn when Zelwood served.
“I want you to know that Sgt. Gravlin and the thousands of others of men and women who lost their lives are not forgotten and will never be forgotten,” Watson said.
In addition, Senator Russell Black – who has known the family for many years – and Representative Elect Mike Soboleski, Representative Scott Landry, and Commissioner Bob Carlton presented the family with a memoriam that Black sponsored in the State Legislature, recognizing Zelwood’s service and sacrifice.
Rob McCann from Jared Golden’s office delivered a statement on behalf of the congressman.
Tom Saviello, Master of Ceremonies for the service, said that while Governor Janet Mills could not attend the services, she sent a video message for the family.
Jesse Hildebrand, former Commander of the 343rd, said that a crew of four from the squadron came up from Louisiana for the services and to bring Zelwood home.
“He’s still a member of our squadron and a brother, no matter how long,” Hildebrand said.
Ida Gravlin, Zelwood’s mother and Sue’s great-grandmother, struggled to fully accept that he was gone. The family story is that when Zelwood’s personal belongings were returned to the family, a letter was found that had been written three days before his plane went down. While Ida and Zelwood corresponded regularly, this last letter had never been mailed. Ida requested that the letter never be opened while she was alive.
In 2003, some time after Ida’s death, the family opened the letter.
“Mom, stop sending me so much postage,” was one of the things Sue remembers Zelwood writing.
Before the services began, a heavy rain storm drenched the area. By the time the gathering began the trip up to Mike Square Cemetery, the rain had ceased and the sun was starting to peek out through the thick clouds.
Members of the Norton-Wuori Post 61 in Kingfield were present at the cemetery, along with the Color Guard from the Jay VFW Post 3335 and the Color Guard from Farmington Roderick-Crosby Post 28. Father Paul Dumais officiated the services, which were brief and followed by a luncheon reception at the PACC.
“He’s home,” Sue said. “He’s home where he belongs. He’s buried with his mom.”
The family would like to thank the following: the U.S. Army; Fort Drum contingent; Sarah L. Scott, SFC, U.S. Army; Scott Adams and Adams Funeral Home; Brian Donovan; Chris and Julie Hardy and Edmunds Market; Farmington Post 28; Phillips Post 64; the PACC; Bruce and Winona; Father Paul; Paul Harden; and others who assisted throughout this process.
The service was recorded, but not livestreamed, by Mt. Blue TV and will be made available for viewing at MtBlueTV.org