After 73 years and 7,000 miles, a World War II pilot comes home

Chick Jacobs – Fayetteville Observer

Capt. Fulton Lanier’s last mission, in 1944, ended when the plane iced up in a severe storm and slammed into a mountain between Tibet and India.

The last 25 yards of Capt. Fulton Lanier’s journey home came with staccato rifle shots, a bugle playing a mournful, familiar tune and the occasional growling of lumber trucks trying to find fourth gear on nearby U.S 421 on a sweltering Thursday afternoon.

But, after more than 73 years of waiting, and nearly two years after a melting glacier yielded his remains 7,000 miles away, the 6-foot-tall World War II pilot known to his family as “Runt” was finally home in Harnett County.

“This sets a lot of things right,” said his nephew, retired Judge Frank Lanier, accepting handshakes from some of the 100-plus friends and family who attended a ceremony at Harnett Memorial Cemetery. “There wasn’t any doubt what happened, but just to have him here … it means a lot.”

Another family member, Diane Lanier, agreed.

“There was a service nearly 20 years ago at Arlington (National Cemetery in Virginia) when they first found the plane,” she said. “Four of the others on the plane were buried. But not Frank. They didn’t find him.”

That any of the crew of the C-87 Liberator cargo plane were found at all was a bit of a miracle. Lanier was one of the pilots flying a dangerous lifeline over the mountains of Tibet to supply Allied troops fighting the Japanese in China. It was called “Flying the Hump.” The combination of worn equipment, quick turnarounds and unpredictable, generally awful weather made it one of the most dangerous missions of the war.

So, of course, Lanier volunteered. Tall and lanky, a football star at Campbell College in Buies Creek and Lenoir-Rhyne, Lanier was eager to fly. He flew three missions a week, when weather and mechanical conditions allowed. His last mission, on Jan. 31, 1944, according to records, ended when the plane iced up in a severe storm and slammed into a mountain between Tibet and India.

It remained there, preserved in ice until the blistering hot summer of 1993 actually melted enough ice for Tibetian hunters to search for game in the area. They found the plane and four of the bodies. They also found evidence of Lanier, including his lieutenant’s bars and a meal ticket.

A military lab in Hawaii later positively identified four members of the air crew, but Lanier was not among them. Still, the Army hosted a burial ceremony for all five men — Lanier included — at a joint grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 1998.

Nearly 20 years later, another expedition to the area recovered one more body. DNA testing in Hawaii confirmed the body as Lanier’s. He was flown back to North Carolina this week, and returned to his family in Buies Creek.

Several veteran’s motorcycle clubs provided a rolling escort, and he was buried with full military honors.

Also present at the ceremony were several members of the Chinese Student and Scholars Association from the Triangle area. Like nearly everyone sweltering in the afternoon sun, none of them knew Lanier. But they knew that their world would have been very different without pilots like him.

“We remember his place in history,” said Miniqiang Jin as other club members nodded in agreement. “We fought the Japanese together, shoulder to shoulder. They were not soldiers, but brothers.

“When I was young, I remember the stories of how Americans helped as we fought. These men were very brave. We honor their memory.”

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