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Red Cross Staff Member Lost in World War II Plane Crash

Nearly 67 years after their B-25 military plane was lost in a crash on a barren mountain in Italy, five people who served their country in World War II will be honored at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, with their remains buried in a joint grave at the storied cemetery.

Four of those crash victims being honored in the Old Post Chapel at the historic national cemetery are U.S. Army personnel, and the fifth is an American Red Cross staff member, Carolyn Chapin.

Chapin, a correspondent who had joined the Red Cross Communications Department in 1942, was assigned cover the war, and the role of the Red Cross in it, for readers of Red Cross-published magazines that were sent to subscribers who joined the Red Cross and paid annual membership dues.

“Carolyn Chapin, like many of the women who served with the American Red Cross during World War II; was courageous, compassionate and patriotic, said Jerry DeFrancisco, president, Humanitarian Services for the Red Cross. “What makes her unique is that she left a body of work as a Red Cross Correspondent that showed the unique role Red Cross played in the lives of the men and women who fought that war. We are proud of her, and pleased to see that she is being honored with the others who lost their lives that day.”

Chapin was sent in 1943 to Algiers, Algeria, to tell the story of U.S. forces fighting to liberate North Africa from the Nazis – and to show how Red Cross Service Clubs and mobile, front-line canteens brought small touches of home to GI Joes across North Africa, making a big difference in the lives of men and women who were far from wherever they really wanted to be.

In one of her early stories, dated April 1943, she wrote about the transformation of an empty school building in Algiers into a Service Club for GI’s and how necessity was the mother of invention for Red Cross workers trying to outfit a club with virtually no raw materials to work with:

“The Americans put on their thinking caps (non-rationed) and bought native pottery bowls for coffee cups…salvaged the wood from packing crates in which their own supplies had come…and gave it to local carpenters to make desks, lamp bases, file trays, supply cabinets, knobby coat racks and double-decker beds for the club dormitory.”

Her stories for Red Cross covered a wide range. She wrote of the experiences of 18 female American field hospital workers in Benghazi, a coastal town in Libya, the only American women within 200 miles. She also compiled factoids for an NBC Radio story showing American soldiers fighting in the Mediterranean theater were a hungry bunch, consuming 25.2 million doughnuts by September 1943. You can click here to read one of Carolyn's stories.

On May 10, 1944, Carolyn Chapin was out of Africa and bound for Naples. On the island of Corsica off the Italian coast, she boarded a B-25, joining four Army personnel to hitch a ride on what was supposed to be a 30-minute, cross-island mail run. The weather was soup and in the fog, the plane crashed into a barren mountainside and exploded. No one survived.

Army and Red Cross reports at the time suggested no remains could be recovered. Few personal effects were found – but one of them was a woman’s shoe.

Some 4,000 feet up Mt. Cagna, Carolyn Chapin and her travelling companions were in what seemed to be their final resting place: a craggy mountain slope filled with house-sized boulders and huge crevices.

And that’s the way it stayed for decades, until May 1989. That’s when a Corsican villager, who witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, told authorities he saw local residents bury the dead in some of the towering crevices that streak the mountain.

The Corsicans recovered the remains, along with some personal effects and plane parts. Later, U.S. recovery teams also searched the mountain, and sent what they found to the U.S. Central Identification Labs at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) spent years analyzing the remains, using methods that ranged from DNA samples taken from living relatives, to a process of elimination to conclude the single woman on board that aircraft was Chapin.

The State Department has an office that handles unidentified cold cases, and in September 2005, a call seeking Carolyn’s relatives to confirm her identity surprised Bruce Chapin, her nephew.

Between the more than three years from the time the State Department called, until he received a letter in March 2009 formally identifying his Aunt Carolyn’s remains, Bruce Chapin began to research his aunt’s story. He turned to Susan Watson, the Red Cross Archivist, who provided him with photographs, service records and copies of the stories his aunt had written.

That history helped bring Carolyn Chapin to life for two relatives: niece Cindy, who was just a few months old at the time, and Bruce, a nephew born after his aunt was killed.

Carolyn's family had her final correspondence from her in the summer of 1942, before she left Washington for Algeria: “I have little to leave you all, but love.”

“What Susan and others at Red Cross were able to dig up and provide to us gave me a chance to hear Carol’s voice, which I had never heard before,” Bruce Chapin said. “I now have things about Carol that I can pass along to next generations of our family – it’s part of the family record now. We lost a lot, and now we’ve been able to recover some of that.”

At the family’s request, the State Department contacted Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and asked for assistance in bringing Carolyn Chapin’s remains home, and she was laid to rest with her parents in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Woodbury on August 10, 2009. This week, she is also being honored and included in the joint grave with the others on that lost plane at Arlington National Cemetery.