The sound of taps being played by bagpipes cut through the cool autumn air Tuesday as U.S. Army Air Forces Sgt. Elvin L. Phillips returned home after nearly 80 years when his remains were buried at the Utah Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park in Bluffdale.
A Salt Lake City native, Phillips was assigned to the 66th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 44th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and 8th Air Force in the summer of 1943.
On Aug. 1, 1943, Phillips was serving as a gunner on a B-24 Liberator aircraft when it crashed after being hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire during Operation Tidal Wave — the largest bombing mission against the oil fields — in the vicinity of Ploiesti, Romania.
He was 23 years when he died.
After the war, Phillips’ remains were not identified and he was buried in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, Prahova, Romania.
"For nearly 80 years, his complete story was known only to God," said Chaplain Maj. Timothy Clayson. "Now, through the mercy of that same God, he is known to his family and to the community that sent him off to fight on foreign soil for the freedom which we all enjoy to this day."
Upon conclusion of the war, the American Graves Registration Command disinterred all American remains from the Bolovan Cemetery for identification. More than 80 unknown soldiers could not be identified and were permanently interred at Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, both located in Belgium.
Then, in 2017, the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency began exhuming unknown soldiers believed to be unaccounted-for airmen from Operation Tidal Wave losses. The remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for examination and identification.
Five years after this process began, Phillips was accounted for by the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Agency on March 23, after his remains were identified using anthropological, mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.
"The recovery of Sgt. Phillips has brought a gathering of family and friends, old and new, to mourn the loss of this young hero," Clayson said.
Phillips' nephew, Frank Moe, said that he personally submitted DNA to help identify his lost uncle and that he's "tickled pink," to see his uncle returned home and laid to rest.
"I'm just elated today. I'm glad it's done," Moe said. "His folks are buried here in Salt Lake, too, so I'm really happy."
His name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Impruneta, Italy, along with others still missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Moe added that Phillips' brother, who died a couple of years ago, always said that if they ever found Phillips, he'd like for him to be brought home.
"So it happened," Moe said.