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After 76 years, a Utah war hero comes home

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Helen Lower Simmons poses for a portrait while holding a photograph of her brother, Max Wendell Lower, taken while he served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, at her home in Logan on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Max Lower was killed when his plane was shot down during the Operation Tidal Wave attacks on Romanian oil refineries during the war. His remains were recently identified using DNA technology and will soon be returned to his family in Utah.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

LOGAN — Helen Lower Simmons can remember the first time she saw her father cry.

Simmons saw the dust coming down the road toward her family’s farm in Lewiston that day before she saw the sage green car kicking it up. Two men in military uniforms got out, she recalls, and handed an envelope to her father.

With his eyes full of tears, her father relayed the news to 14-year-old Simmons and her siblings: their oldest brother, Max, was missing in action.

That was August of 1943. Seventy-six years later, Sgt. Max Wendell Lower is no longer missing. He’s been found, and he’s coming home.

For years, Simmons and her family wondered what happened to her brother, who was 23 years old when he was killed in Operation Tidal Wave, a World War II air attack by U.S. Army Air Force bombers on oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania. Fifty-three of 177 planes were taken down in the raid.

In the confusion and grief that followed the attack on Aug. 1, 1943, information came to the Lowers slowly — in a “trickle, trickle, trickle,” Simmons said. Mothers of the crewmembers on Lower’s plane — known as “Old Baldy” — kept in touch, some holding onto shreds of hope that their sons had somehow survived the deadly day that would come to be known as Black Sunday.

“There wasn’t a day that his name wasn’t coming up,” Simmons, now 90, recalled from her home in Logan. “We were always looking for little clues.”

Questions remained for decades after the raid: What had happened to Lower’s plane, and what had happened to his body in the aftermath?

In 2009, Simmons and her family were able to piece together some of the “how” of the tragedy through the account of an eyewitness, a Catholic monk who happened to be walking nearby.

But what became of Lower’s body remained a mystery — until now.

Thanks to advancements in DNA technology, Lower’s remains have been identified after more than 70 years. Lower will come back home to Utah this week, where he will be honored in a memorial ceremony at the same Lewiston cemetery where his parents are buried.

Another World War II soldier killed in action is also returning to the Beehive State after 76 years next month. Robert James Hatch, who enlisted in the Marines after the Pearl Harbor bombing, died in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theater. Now, he’ll be buried in Bountiful.

“I always felt a little uncomfortable with him being there, because being buried here in Bountiful he’d be here with his family, in the shadow of the mountains, if you will,” said his nephew, Tom Hatch.

Against a childhood backdrop of summers spent playing nighttime hide-and-seek and winters spent ice skating on the family’s pond, Simmons remembers her older brother as a pleasant-mannered hard worker, an “industrious” young man who liked to spend his Saturday nights at dances in nearby Preston.

As his name moved further up the draft list in 1941, Lower decided to enlist in the Army rather than wait to be drafted. On a January morning in 1942, he hitched a ride into Logan with the milkman.

The last time Simmons saw her brother, in December of 1942, he’d finished his training and was preparing to go overseas. The family had less than 24 hours together.

Some eight months later, Simmons’ mother turned on the radio at the family farm and heard about a raid over oil refineries. She immediately suspected a connection — her son had mentioned that he was preparing for something big.

“She thought, ‘If I could just hear from him after that; that was probably what he was talking about,’” Simmons said.

Two weeks later, the sage green car pulled up to their house. Another year passed, and Lower was presumed dead.

“It was just a continual funeral for weeks and months,” Simmons remembers. “My mother said how much better it would have been up front to know this had happened to him.”

It would be decades before Simmons would learn what actually happened to her brother. After the raid, locals buried his body and others in a nearby Catholic cemetery; the U.S. military later moved the bodies to Belgium. They remained in storage in Belgium until 2017, when a genealogist began searching for the next of kin.

Simmons and her younger brother, Sam, each submitted DNA samples that year. It wasn’t until last month, however, that they received a positive confirmation: Max Lower’s remains had been identified.

Above a table of black-and-white portraits of her brother, siblings and parents in Simmons’ home today is a large, colorful photo of the family she and her husband made in the years since then. Photo albums on the coffee table are full of smiling children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Still, there’s always been a mystery at the center of the Lower family; a missing piece in the family puzzle.

Stephen Simmons, Helen’s son, never met Max Lower. But growing up, he heard the story of his uncle who left for the war and never came back.

“There’s just a hole when somebody is missing like that,” Stephen Simmons said. “For everybody, even those who didn’t know him, I think it brings a lot of peace.”

Contributing: Mike Anderson