Gini Doolittle never knew her cousin, but her family talked so often of his mysterious disappearance that she felt a close bond.
Lt. Joseph Auld was their "lost hero," she said, a pilot who "flew the hump" over the Himalayas during World War II until he and his aircraft disappeared in 1944.
Doolittle spent hours paging through an album of photos showing Auld and her father, Charles Wilderman, a technical sergeant and radio operator who flew similar missions from India to Burma and China.
Later, Doolittle, a professor at Rowan University, came to know Auld better through a diary he left behind.
She never expected his remains to be recovered, much less that he and others in his crew would be celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery 66 years after their deaths.
The airmen will be remembered July 15 in funeral services at the Old Post Chapel, just outside the cemetery gate. A caisson will then take their remains to a grave site where they will honored in patriotic ceremonies and by a fighter-jet flyover.
"I opened a package at my house in September, and inside was a spiral-bound report that said [the Army had] identified him," said Doolittle, 64, of Sicklerville. "I was speechless."
Doolittle was likewise stunned to meet a brother of one of the six others on Auld's C-47. She and Robert Frantz of Lindenwold met at a survivors meeting held by the Defense Department.
"Imagine my surprise to be seated with a relative of another crew member," she said. "He lived just a few miles away."
Frantz, 72, last saw his big brother, Tech. Sgt. Clarence E. Frantz, just before the latter was deployed in 1942, and he has treasured his memories and photos.
To find his plane "means a lot to me," Frantz said. "It's still emotional."
Doolittle remembered the exotic tales her father told when she was a girl about his wartime experiences in the China-Burma-India Theater. Fighting there didn't get the headlines the campaigns in Europe and the Pacific did.
"My father talked about tigers walking through the camps, about the poverty and lack of respect for human life," she said. "I never realized how brave he was until the last 15 years."
Doolittle recalled seeing her late father's leather flight jacket, sunglasses, and large military-issue canvas suitcase.
Conversations about his service invariably led to stories of Auld, her second cousin, who disappeared at age 26. "It kept him alive over the years," she said. "He was always in the back of my mind.
"In the 1950s, I went to a movie set in India, and my grandmother said, 'Your father and Joey were there during the war,' " she recalled.
Doolittle went to college, married, had twins, and earned her doctorate in 1996. She teaches educational leadership in Rowan's doctoral program.
But Auld was often on her mind, especially one day in May 2004 as she marked papers at her kitchen table while half-listening to the television.
Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes was reporting on Defense Department efforts to recover the remains of U.S. soldiers killed in long-ago conflicts and said a plane had been discovered west of Myitkyina in Burma, now Myanmar.
"That can't be my cousin's plane," Doolittle remembered thinking. The next month "I got a phone message on my answering machine. . . . It was the Army. They wanted to talk to me about my cousin."
Without offering much detail, officials asked her for a blood sample to analyze DNA. By January 2005, Doolittle had received a detailed report on the crash site.
The next year, she visited a family survivors meeting hosted by the Joint POW/MIA Account Command, where she hoped to learn more about her cousin.
She sat next to Frantz and recognized his last name. A Frantz had been among the crew that went down with Auld.
"Are you related to him?" she asked.
He told her that he was the youngest brother of the 24-year-old radio operator.
The Defense Department "had a report about the crash site," said Frantz, who served in the Navy and Army. On hearing the details, "I lost it. I went outside to get myself together."
Discovery in 2001
On the morning of May 23, 1944, Lt. Auld and Sgt. Frantz and the rest of their crew took off for Burma from an airfield in Dinjan, India. They were carrying much-needed ordnance to the Allies, who were trying to drive the Japanese out of Myitkyina.
The weather was not cooperating - monsoon season had begun early. It was raining, and visibility was poor.
The two-engine cargo plane plunged into the bed of a stream that trickled down into the foothills of the Himalayas, according to the official reports. Some of the ordnance exploded on impact, sending pieces of the aircraft across the lush jungle, where it was scavenged by local tribal people.
Fifty-seven years later, in 2001, reports about the wreckage made their way to the Joint POW/MIA Account Command in Hawaii, which began a full site investigation in January 2003.
Amid the decaying debris - which included the plane's nose section, emblazoned with a picture of a flying mule - were bone fragments and teeth. DNA from two teeth was matched to Doolittle's DNA.
"My DNA connected to him!" Doolittle said. "Matching the teeth was very emotional. It makes it real. Here were remnants that connected me to his life."
Doolittle and Frantz plan to attend the July 15 funeral service, then head to their loved ones' graves.
Auld's name will appear on an individual headstone at Arlington National Cemetery because his remains were identified. Frantz's were not, so his name will appear on a stone bearing the names of all the other crew.
Robert Frantz said he would wear his Army uniform to honor his brother.
"I was 7 years old when my brother disappeared," Frantz said. "We thought we would never know what happened to him. This has brought it all back into focus. It's had an impact on my life."
Many relatives and friends are expected to turn out for the ceremonies.
Auld, Frantz, and their crew "took a huge risk," Doolittle said. "They are heroes, and now they're home."