Lost but not forgotten: The Heaven Can Wait

  • Published
  • By Glenn S. Robertson
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

In March 1944, a B-24 Liberator named the Heaven Can Wait went down off Awar Point in Hansa Bay, Papua New Guinea, with 11 souls on board.

The aircraft and crew were assigned to the 90th Bombardment Group’s 320th Bomber Squadron and were shot down while on a bombing run over Japanese airfields to limit the enemy’s ability to execute air attacks.

Though decades had passed, family members of those lost never gave up hope that one day, the Heaven Can Wait might be found, and the remains of their loved ones might be located.

One of those relatives, Scott Althaus, visited F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, in May 2024, to talk to members of the 90th Missile Wing about the efforts taken to recover that aircraft and locate the Airmen who died in 1944, and their connection to the Mighty Ninety of today. Althaus’ cousin, once removed, Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Thomas Kelly, was the aircraft’s bombardier.

During his discussion, Althaus, an academic researcher and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, explained the efforts of private organizations and the Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency in working toward locating the Airmen’s remains and the wreckage of the aircraft.

“The Heaven Can Wait aircraft wreck would never have been found without the involvement of Project Recover and to say that I feel profoundly grateful to them is to say too little,” said Althaus. “With DPAA, I am humbled and amazed that after 80 years our government is still committed to finding and repatriating our MIA service members. The efforts by DPAA and the Navy's Experimental Diving Unit to recover crew member remains from the Heaven Can Wait wreck represent the deepest underwater recovery mission ever undertaken by the American government. For MIA families like mine, their work embodies America's promise to leave no servicemember behind and in the case of the 11 missing crew members associated with the Heaven Can Wait, this is a promise kept.”

Althaus’ search for answers began on Memorial Day 2013, when he recalled a childhood memory of a headstone at a family plot in a cemetery in Livermore, California. He asked his mother about the memory, and she told him about her cousin, Lt. Kelly.

In 2015, several of Kelly’s traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit a library at the University of Memphis. Wiley Woods, the historian for the 90th Bombardment Group (heavy), had documented the aircraft’s deployment to great length, and those records had been housed at the university’s library. They spent two days in the museum poring over documents and returned home with more than 800 photographs and scanned images.

It was those documents that would drive Althaus’ creation of a 32-page report that he would send to members of Project Recover. The organization had already planned to search the waters around Papua New Guinea in search of military wreckage, but the report Althaus sent led them to prioritize Hansa Bay as a primary search location, narrowing their expected search area.

Their team of volunteers were equipped with underwater robots and the most advanced side-can sonar systems, yet it took them more than two weeks of focused searching to find the plane when they visited Hansa Bay in 2017, according to Althaus.

Then, on March 30, 2018, Althaus and other relatives of the lost crew received the notification they’d been waiting for. Project Recover had located the Heaven Can Wait in deep water off Awar Point.

“When I got that call on Good Friday from Project Recover, I hoped the news would be encouraging but I did not expect to hear that they had found the plane,” said Althaus. “That weekend, thanks to Project Recover, Tom’s family saw images of his grave for the first time, right where it’s always been, 200 feet beneath the surface of Hansa Bay, and we were grateful. Grateful for Tom’s sacrifice, which is now once again a living memory for his extended family, grateful for all those people across the globe we’ve never met, people who helped us understand and embrace what Memorial Day is, and what it is for. And we are grateful that one empty future will never be forgotten.”

That weekend was one of joy for Kelly’s relatives, but it was also one of a sense of closure and grief finally released.

“The Easter weekend that followed will be remembered by Tom’s extended family as a time of exhilaration and of grieving, and the grieving really surprised us,” said Althaus. “Our relative died a long time ago, most of us never knew him, and the circumstances of his loss were by then familiar after five years of research. But up to that weekend he was a face in an old picture, a name on a memorial stone.”

However, the good news of the aircraft’s discovery would not be considered officially located until a U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit confirmed the plane’s identification in December 2018. With that identification, the POW/MIA Account Agency quietly began the solemn duty of remains recovery; however, external factors delayed recovery efforts until 2023.

The NEDU and DPAA returned to Awar Point in January and February 2023, and after five weeks of diving, the Sailors came back to land with material remains, including potential osseous material. A repatriation ceremony was held at the U.S. embassy in Singapore, May 2, 2023.

Though Heaven Can Wait was lost 80 years ago, there are lessons for and connections to the Airmen of today to be gained from their loss.

“Learning about a unit’s predecessor and its history is important for multiple reasons. Certainly, it provides an opportunity to learn about significant historic events and the lessons we, as a service, learned from those events, which, in turn, helps us gain a better understanding of what went right and how to avoid past mistakes,” said Kyle Brislan, 90th Missile Wing Historian. “Indirectly, learning about your predecessors allows Airmen to gain insight into the legacy they continue today. Whether an airman is deployed to the Southwest Pacific Area in 1944 or on alert in the missile field in 2024, they all maintain a connection of service, and hearing about the stories of previous Airmen enhances esprit de corps, as today’s Airmen can tie their history to those that served before them.”

More than 81,000 Americans remain missing in action from wars fought between 1941 to today, with about 75% of those lost in the Indo-Pacific region and more than half presumed lost at sea.

367 out of 820 members of the 90th Bombardment Group who were killed in WW2 are still listed as MIA today, and Project Recover is actively investigating seven MIA aircraft losses from the 90th, according to Althaus.

Althaus joined Project Recover in 2019 as a volunteer and has been working with that organization ever since to convey the importance of their mission to MIA families and the country as a whole.


Heaven Can Wait - Tennyson Crew
Lost March 11, 1944

1st Lt. Herbert G. Tennyson

2nd Lt. Michael J. McFadden, Jr.

 2nd Lt. Donald V. Sheppick

2nd Lt. Thomas V. Kelly, Jr.

Tech. Sgt. Edward Gorvetzian

Radio Operator
Staff Sgt. Eugene J. Darrigan

Staff Sgt.  Walter W. Graves

Staff Sgt. Donald W. Burd

Staff Sgt. Eugene A. Reinhardt

Tail Gunner
Staff Sgt. Paul W. Martin

Staff Sgt. John W. Emmer