Friday, December 26, 2008

Put to rest after 67 years

After 67 years, a Hendersonville woman will say farewell to the fiance she never got to marry, a casualty of enemy fire in the early days of the Pacific fighting.

When World War II broke out Dec. 7, 1941, Navy Ensign Robert G. Tills was the pilot of a seaplane moored at Malalag Bay in the Philippines. The day after the surprise attack that propelled the U.S. into the war, Japanese fighter planes swooped in and sank Tills' PBY-4 Catalina flying plane. He went down with it, and his body wasn't recovered. 

A fellow crewman saw a Japanese fighter plane fire the shots that killed the young pilot. Tills was the first Navy officer lost in the U.S. defense of the Philippine islands.Shortly after that, his fiancee, Vicki Quandt Lee, attended his memorial service."It was very sad," Lee said last week from her Carolina Village home.More than 60 years later, the wreckage and the remains of the Manitowoc, Wis., sailor were recovered and Tills was identified using dental records."In October 2007, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was notified by U.S. authorities in the Philippines that aircraft wreckage had been discovered in Malalag Bay," the Defense Department said. "A fragment of the wreckage bore the markings 'PBY-4.'"On Dec. 1, 2008, the Department of Defense officially announced it had identified Tills' remains.

After 67 years, family and friends are relieved by the news, including the Hendersonville woman who was in love with Tills at the time he was killed."I can't believe they found him under 60 feet of water," Lee said.Tills' remains will finally be put to rest in Arlington National Cemetery on March 23.For 53 years Vicki was married to Robert E. Lee, who has since passed away.She was attending Northwestern College in Watertown, Wis., in 1936 when she met Tills, a fellow student."We were meant for each other," said Lee, who is now 89.Tills later went to another college, then joined the Navy and studied aeronautical engineering."He joined the Navy to learn how to fly," Lee said.For the six years they were separated, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they wrote one another often. They were going to get married after Tills came home in December 1941."Then they got him," Lee said.Tills' sister, Jean, was 11 years old when her older brother perished in the Philippine Islands.Jean Aplin, now 78, said the Navy notified her that her brother's remains were recovered from the aircraft wreckage in Malalag Bay. 

Through an Internet search, Aplin, who now lives in Arizona, found Vicki Lee in Hendersonville and told her about the discovery."That was a shock, that they found his body," Lee said.Jeff Miller, founder of HonorAir, and his wife, Tamara, plan to escort Lee to Arlington for the burial."I am looking forward to it," Lee said. "I can't believe it."According to Navy historical records, Tills enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1937 at 19 years old. Two years later, he was commissioned as an ensign in the reserves and in April of 1941, he gained active military status.

Tills had a Navy destroyer escort named after him in June 1943. It was launched four months later, providing escort services against submarine and air attacks for Navy vessels and convoys.After the war, the USS Tills (DE 748) was converted to a training vessel and in 1969 the ship was sunk in a training exercise off the U.S. east coast, according to Navy historical records.

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