Home at last: Remains of World War II soldier arrive in Cleveland, Tennessee

photo Contributed photo Staff Sgt. Berthold A. Chastain, a Dalton, Ga., native who lived in Cleveland, Tenn., was a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber that was shot down in New Guinea in 1943. His remains recently were found and were brought home Saturday.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Staff Sgt. Berthold A. Chastain returned home Saturday from World War II.

Chastain's remains, missing for nearly 60 years, arrived at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Saturday morning. A contingent of motorcycle riders from the Georgia and Tennessee Patriot Guards were waiting to escort the soldier home.

The procession, escorted by state patrol and the riders, went to Dalton, Ga., where Chastain was born in 1916, and then to Cleveland. Along the way people stood to salute or wave American flags.

Chastain was the tail gunner in a B-24 bomber that crashed Oct. 27, 1943, on the South Pacific island of New Guinea. Searchers couldn't find the crash site, so the U.S. Army Air Corps officially declared the 12-member crew dead Oct. 24, 1944.

But the search went on.

In 2003 a POW/MIA investigation team learned that a New Guinea resident had found a potential crash site. It still took years to find the site, find evidence, and identify the remains. The family was notified in November that DNA confirmed Chastain's remains had been found.

"It's a comfort to know finally what happened,'' said Tulie Mae Chastain Swilling, his daughter. "It is awe-inspiring to imagine that after all these years God has revealed that, where he was found, after 67 years.''

She was a small child when her father died.

"To me, my daddy was still alive. He was alive when I talked to him last,'' she told reporters. "I didn't see him as dead. But all of these years there was this thing in the back of my mind that he might be somewhere alive. ... When they told us they had found him, then it hit. Then I grieved.''

Military service is a familiar thing to the family, said James Clark, a first cousin of Chastain and a Korean War veteran.

He said there were five Chastain brothers and all served in World War II. Chastain's brother, Clifford, also flew in a B-24. He was captured by the Japanese, spending two years as a prisoner of war. He's still alive, Clark said.

George Burgan led the Tennessee Patriot Guards who escorted the cortege.

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"This is history,'' Burgan said. "Many of the people here weren't even born when this man died.''

A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Chastain's birthday, at Ralph Buckner Funeral Home. A B-52 bomber flyover is scheduled about 1:40 p.m. The burial will be at McInturff Cemetery near Birchwood, a short distance from his daughter's home.

"We were told we could have buried him at Arlington or Chattanooga,'' his daughter said, speaking of national cemeteries where veterans are entitled to lie. "But I wanted him close. It's been long enough.''

Contact Randall Higgins at rhiggins@timesfreepress.com or 423-314-1029.