Remains of fallen WWII airman Kenneth McKeeman will finally return to family after 80 years

Sgt. Kenneth McKeeman
Sgt. Kenneth McKeeman was finally accounted for last fall, nearly 80 years after he was killed in WWII.

A WWII hero is finally returning home.

US Army Air Force Tech. Sergeant Kenneth J. McKeeman, who was raised in Brooklyn, was shot out of the sky in Europe when he was just 23 years old fighting against the Nazis.

For nearly 80 years, his anonymous remains lay untouched in a tomb in France until they were finally identified in September.

After all that time, Sgt. McKeeman will finally be put to rest with a proper military burial surrounded by his surviving family members in Connecticut this spring.

“Those who knew him and loved him and raised him don’t know this is happening. But we’re still profoundly grateful to the military,” McKeeman’s nephew, Mike McKeeman, told The Post.

On March 11, 1944 — roughly three months before D-Day — McKeeman boarded a B-24 Liberator bomber as a radio operator with 10 other crew members,  according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The plane departed San Pancrazio Airfield in Italy on a bombing mission against the Nazi-controlled Toulon Harbor on France’s Mediterranean coast.

After dropping its payload on targets, the plane took heavy anti-aircraft flak directly behind its rear bomb bay. Other soldiers on the mission reported seeing flames bursting from the Liberator’s waist windows before the plane split in half and plummeted into the sea below.

Sgt. McKeeman was killed while flying a mission in France. Ashley M. Wright
Sgt. McKeeman was killed while flying a mission in France. Ashley M. Wright

No parachutes were deployed, witnesses reported, and no one on board is believed to have survived. German forces stationed in the area documented the crash site near Cape Cépet and recovered several sets of remains.

Sgt. McKeeman’s family was forced to hold a funeral service without a body at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Connecticut.

In April 1945, the US Army exhumed 25 graves in Toulon’s Lagoubran Cemetery believed to contain the remains of Allied soldiers, and found the remains of seven soldiers who were aboard McKeeman’s bomber.

Nearby were four other sets of remains that could not be identified that were interred in Rhône American Cemetery in Draguignan, France.

Sgt. Kenneth McKeeman’s family was forced to hold a funeral without his body. Ashley M. Wright
Sgt. Kenneth McKeeman’s family was forced to hold a funeral without his body. Ashley M. Wright

The remains stayed there until June 2019, when the Department of Defense and the American Battle Monuments Commission exhumed them for comparison with unresolved casualties from WWII.

Officials with the department contacted McKeeman’s relatives for a DNA sample about five or six years ago, according to Mike McKeeman, whose father was the airman’s brother. He provided a sample but they still needed a sample of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from the mother’s side.

They then got a sample from other relatives including Marianne Laporta, whose mother was Kenneth McKeeman’s older half-sister, according to her daughter Caroline LaPorta — McKeeman’s great-niece.

On September 18, 2023, the remains were finally identified as belonging to McKeeman, bringing closure to his family who’d heard murmurings of his death their whole lives.

An old newspaper clipping from Connecticut announcing Sgt. McKeeman’s death. Ashley M. Wright
An old newspaper clipping from Connecticut announcing Sgt. McKeeman’s death. Ashley M. Wright

“We never imagined that we would ever end up identifying him,” LaPorta told The Post.

“When I told my mom, she burst into tears. And it touched me because she never really talked about Uncle Ken, she didn’t really remember him,” she continued.

“She remembers when he died, when the family was notified … her mom crying and her grandma crying and the family just being upset. So when I told her they actually had identified him using her DNA she just burst into tears,” she said.

Representatives from the Army and DPAA met with the family for three hours in the fall and provided a detailed account of how the young sergeant died and explained the science behind matching his remains to their DNA. The family’s been touched by the process.

“There’s a profound sense of sadness but it wasn’t like losing a parent or that type of sadness, and in fact, I was born 7 years after he died — but I kind of stepped back and reflected on the sacrifice he made and some 400,000 other individuals killed in that conflict,” Mike McKeeman said.

Sgt. McKeeman was only 23 years old. Ashley M. Wright
Sgt. McKeeman was only 23 years old. Ashley M. Wright

“He died when he was 23 and never had the chance to have kids, grandkids and all stuff like that. He sacrificed for the country. He sacrificed for the country but we’re a big part of that,” he added.

LaPorta, who experienced firsthand the death of a child, was particularly moved thinking about her relatives’ grieving for their loved one.

“It really hit home for me because I lost a son. He was 19. So the more I heard about Uncle Ken, and when they identified him I thought it was 80 years ago and, I don’t know him, but people I love loved him and he was someone’s son,” she told The Post.

“And to think that they didn’t have his body, they didn’t even know where he was, they couldn’t even bury him, they couldn’t even honor him besides a mass. They had nothing but a flag.

“To think that 80 years later he’s going to come home and he’s going to get the honor he deserves it brings tears to my eyes,” LaPorta said.

Sgt. McKeeman’s name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at Rhône American Cemetery, France, along with others still missing from WWII. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for, the DPAA said.

He will be buried at the State Veterans Cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut, on June 7 with military honors. His remains will be flown into Bradley airport in Hartford and family have been invited to accept them on the tarmac, Mike McKeeman said.

The military has provided a casket and a full uniform complete with all his medals. A religious service is in the works for sometime later this year.

“I’m pretty sure everyone is going to be coming to the service in June. It’s really important and we all just want to be there to honor him,” LaPorta said.

Mike McKeeman said growing up that his father, William, who served in the Navy in WWII, “never really spoke that much” about his brother who never made it home from war.

“We always knew about Uncle Ken, we knew that he’d been shot down, that he was missing in action and the assumption is that he was likely never to be found,” he added.

Sgt. McKeeman was born in Connecticut but after both his parents died when he was about 13 or 14 years old, he went to live with one of his older half-brothers in Brooklyn.

He never graduated from high school, having to work to help support the family, but volunteered for service when he was 18 years old in 1842.

He married his wife, Dolores, while he was furloughed before he deployed to Europe.

“That’s probably the last she ever saw of him,” his nephew said.