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Family of man killed in WWII finds Port Lavaca woman who was his wife

By by Dianna Wray
Dec. 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Updated Dec. 2, 2010 at 6:02 a.m.


STILL MIAMore than 72,000 Americans who served in World War II are still unaccounted for, according to military records.

Three years ago, a farmer in Papua New Guinea was clearing some brush at the edge of the old Buka Airport when he spotted it - the wreckage of a World War II bomber, with human remains inside.

Little did he know, his discovery would end a decades-old mystery for two American families - one in Port Lavaca, one in Oklahoma - thousands of miles away.

For Cindy Finley, of Tulsa, her uncle, William Russell, was just a picture on a mantel piece. A handsome, blond-haired, blue-eyed man grinning through the glass.

"No one ever talked about him. I asked my mother who this man was, and she said he was my uncle who died in the war. I'd go fishing for more information - what was he like, what did he like to do, was he married - but ... she just didn't know," Finley said.

On Nov. 15, 1943, shrapnel cut through the metal skin of a bomber flying low over the Buka airport in Papua New Guinea. The occupants were killed by the fast moving bits of metal, and the plane crashed into a forest of trees at the end of the runway. The wreckage stayed there, forgotten, for decades.

Three years ago, a phone call from a stranger turned Finley's uncle into a reality.

The woman on the other end of the line told Finley her uncle's body had been found in the wreckage of a plane that had crashed in Papua New Guinea, an abrupt ending to 27-year-old Russell's life. Finley was instructed to call the Navy to submit a DNA test determining if one of the skeletons was that of her uncle.

"It brought him alive. I know that sounds silly, because he's dead, but for me all of this made him real, made him a reality."

Even as his bones were interred in Arlington National Cemetery, Finley got a 3-by-4 inch piece of paper from the Navy, revealing another missing piece of the puzzle. Her mother had been right; Russell had a wife.

"The card said, 'Spouse: Dorothy Grace Russell. Last known place of residence: Port Lavaca, Texas.' Of course, this was her last known place of residence in 1946," Finley said.

She told all of this to Tim Stanley, a reporter at the newspaper the Tulsa World. He mentioned the mystery wife in his story. Maybe a reader would know who Dorothy Russell was and how to find her, he told Finley.

Oklahoma resident Charles Sturm grew up in Port Lavaca. Reading the story, he remembered Dorothy Grace Montier, and wondered if she could have been Russell's wife.

Sturm started doing some digging, eventually getting in touch with Robbie Bonorden, a longtime resident of Port Lavaca. Bonorden called the Montier family asking about Dorothy Grace. It was her.

No one knows how they met. There are no pictures from their wedding, only a few details of their brief life together.

But 67 years after 19-year-old Dorothy Montier Russell of Port Lavaca was told her husband had been lost, her daughter Connie Andrews Muzzy wept knowing her mother's first husband had finally been found.

Their married life was brief, and they spent only a few weeks together at the most. Dorothy was hospitalized with pneumonia on their honeymoon. They tried to meet while he was on leave, but train tickets were hard to come by. By the time she got there, he would already be back at the base, her sister Lea Hall recalled.

They were married for less than a year when his plane went down, a fireball in the Pacific.

Dorothy knew, Hall said. She was sitting in a movie theater, watching news reels on the war when she screamed.

"She stood up and screamed that was her husband's plane. She was hysterical, and her friends had to take her out of the theater," Hall said.

A week later, men in uniform arrived at the front door to tell Dorothy her husband was missing in action.

Russell was declared dead in 1946.

Dorothy died in 2002, never knowing the fate of her first husband.

She rarely talked about her first marriage and remarried in 1946, but her daughter said it was good to know the end of her mother's story.

"I was just overcome with emotion. I just started crying. My poor mother, she went through more pain than I ever imagined, and after all of these years who would have ever imagined he would be located?" Muzzy said.

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