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Alabama fighter pilot lost 70 years ago in WWII crash finally coming home

P-38J Lightning
WWII-era Lockheed P-38, like the one Maj. Peyton Mathis Jr., piloted when commanding the 44th Fighter Squadron on Guadalcanal Island. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama World War II pilot who was missing for decades after his plane went down on Guadalcanal Island will finally be laid to rest this week with full military honors.

Maj. Peyton Mathis, Jr., commander of the 44th Fighter Squadron, will be buried in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala. Saturday, January 3rd. He was 28 years old on June 5, 1944 when the P-38J Lightning he was piloting went down over Guadalcanal Island after returning from a mission.

Rescue and recovery attempts at the time of the crash were unsuccessful due to the heavy jungle. It wasn’t until 2013, when local islanders informed Department of Defense crews of a nearby crash site, that the downed P-38 was found, Maj. Mathis still strapped into the cockpit.

When Peyton Mathis III, Maj. Mathis’ nephew, learned his uncle’s lost plane and remains had possibly been found, he contacted Rep. Martha Roby’s (R-AL2) office for help expediting the identification and return process. Maj. Mathis’ widow, Evelyn, is now in her 90s, and the family understandably wanted the remains to be identified and returned as soon as possible.

Maj. Peyton Mathis, Jr., commander of the 44th Fighter Squadron
Maj. Peyton Mathis, Jr., commander of the 44th Fighter Squadron

The Pearl Harbor-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is a special Department of Defense division whose mission is to bring America’s fallen soldiers home, no matter how long it takes and no matter the cost. When JPAC learns of possible remains, it deploys a team of researchers and scientists. From the jungles of Vietnam, the deserts of North Africa, or the depths of the Pacific Ocean, these recovery missions require complex diplomacy and can be difficult and dangerous.

In the case of Maj. Mathis, JPAC crews worked with local police to gain custody of the remains, which were sent to a special laboratory for DNA testing. Researchers used various forensic tools, including DNA provided by the family, to finally confirm Maj. Mathis’ remains.

Rep. Roby thanked the Mathis family, JPAC, and all others who played a part in ensuring this fallen airman was returned home.

“70 years ago, a brave pilot from Montgomery, Alabama went down in the jungles of the Pacific trying to save the lives of his fellow airmen,” she said. “Those who witnessed it said Maj. Mathis was circling the airfield, allowing the planes in his command to land safely, even though he was running low on fuel.

“It has taken decades, but Major Mathis is finally returning home to Montgomery to be laid to rest alongside his father and brother. I appreciate the diligent efforts of the Mathis family, JPAC, and local islanders to find, identify, and return Major Mathis, and I was honored for my office to play a small role in seeing a fallen hero laid to rest.

“Stories like this are what makes our country great, because no other country does this. The United States is the only nation in the world that devotes such resources to the mission of bringing our lost servicemen home. No matter how long it takes, no matter how much it costs, we are going to bring our fallen home.

“Like so many in his generation, Major Peyton Mathis, Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice fighting to defend this country and preserve the very freedom we enjoy today. This week, he will be laid to rest with the full military honors he deserves. I hope his story will serve as a reminder of the sacrifices our military personnel and their families have made over the years, and still make today.”

More information on Maj. Mathis is available from the Department of Defense Prisoner of War / Missing Personnel Office.

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