For ten years, Harbor View Elementary School has honored veterans with a patriotic assembly each November that includes stories from veterans of several wars, songs for each military branch, the reading of “In Flanders Field” and more.
The assemblies began when principal Mellissia Christensen came to the school in 2002 as a way to pay tribute to all veterans, particularly her uncle, Laverne A. Lallathin, who was declared missing in action in April 1944 while flying a mission in World War II.
Hundreds of Harbor View students and their families each year shared Christensen’s family story — a story that had no ending until this year, when Christensen learned that her uncle’s remains and dog tags had been located and returned to the United States.
Christensen will meet with a military representative today to receive the dog tags and begin to arrange an Arlington National Cemetery burial.
“Every time I talk about this, I start to cry,” Christensen said. “It’s just unbelievable, and it means so much to me for this to happen.”
Christensen never met her uncle, who died before she was born. But his presence was a huge influence in her family life, she said.
“My earliest childhood memories include experiencing the grieving and sorrow of my maternal grandparents and mother over the loss of my uncle,” Christensen said in an email. “He was their only son and sibling, and the pain from not knowing what happened to him was something that was passed down to my brother, sister and me.”
Christensen said she and her brother were very close to her grandparents and grew up wanting to fill the void that Uncle Laverne’s death had left in their lives.
“I played trombone all through school because Uncle Laverne did,” Christensen said. “My brother became an Eagle Scout because Uncle Laverne was an Eagle Scout.”
Christensen told Harbor View students about her uncle, who was a first lieutenant in the Marines and pilot of a B-25 bomber. His flight crew left on a training mission the night of April 22, 1944 somewhere in the South Pacific, but they never returned. Family thought his plane crashed at sea, but there was no official confirmation of how and where he died.
“I remember, as a child, praying that he might have survived and ended up on a deserted island…maybe someday there would be a knock on the door and it would be him,” she said in an email. “What a glorious day that would be for Granny and Papa. Of course, it didn’t happen, and they grieved until their deaths. I think the worst part was not knowing where he was.”
Christensen left Harbor View in 2006 on a medical leave and has since retired.
Her Veterans Day assemblies have continued, often with her sending a letter to former students reminding them of her uncle’s sacrifice.
The mystery of Uncle Laverne’s death began to come together in October 2006, when Christensen randomly typed his name into Google and found a post from members of his squadron trying to locate other relatives of the plane’s crew. Emails were exchanged, and Christensen learned that her uncle’s plane had crashed into a mountain on the island of Espiritu Santo in the country of Vanuatu.
“The squadron members had heard that local natives in a remote village had gone to the crash site and buried the remains,” Christensen’s email said.
Several years earlier, Christensen learned, the plane’s navigator’s niece had traveled through dense jungle and up the mountain to the crash site, making a video. She attended a reunion of the group, where she heard stories about her uncle and how other squadron members waited in vain, listening for the sound of his plane, to return on the night of his death.
Christensen also learned about the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command group, which sends teams to recover, identify and return the remains of Americans from different wars and conflicts. Squadron members were trying to get her uncle and his crew on the list, and although Christensen wasn’t hopeful, she submitted DNA samples in case there ever were recovered remains to test.
This Feb. 13, the call came. A representative from the POW/MIA Accountability Division in Quantico, Va. called to say that all seven crew members’ remains were found, identified and coming home. The recovery had taken three 45-day missions, Christensen said.
“They’ve never found both dog tags,” Christensen said. “But both of his were there.”
At 2 p.m. today, a representative from the recovery team will meet with Christensen in Laguna Woods, where she now lives.
All the crew members will be memorialized at the cemetery, Christensen said, but her uncle will be laid to rest there with full military honors.
“Granny and Papa would be thrilled to have him in Arlington,” she said.
Camille Hostetler, who was Harbor View’s Parent Faculty Organization president during Christensen’s tenure at the school, said she was glad to hear the answers to the Uncle Laverne story.
“There was always an underlying sadness to her memories because no one knew of his final moments or his final resting place,” she said. “Now that her uncle’s remains have been recovered and returned, I hope Mellissia and her family have comfort knowing that he now rests in peace. Her patriotism was deeply heartfelt. I’m sure that was due in no small part to her uncle’s actions in World War II.”
Click here to read about last year’s Harbor View Veterans Day assembly.