Walking up to the bright yellow house with deep blue shutters on Troy Avenue in Wilmington, Delaware, laughter poured from the front door. Though they'd suffered a loss, the family inside was not mourning but rather celebrating the homecoming of Colonel Eugene Smith’s remains 62 years after his plane went missing.
Inside this home, snapshots of the life of the Air Force Colonel, fondly known as Uncle Gene, covered every table. Susan Beckman, Smith’s niece and the only remaining relative with memories of the late colonel, describes dressing up as a kid to visit with Uncle Gene on one of his brief trips home between deployments.
"I'd come to this house and there he'd be, sitting casually in a chair reading the newspaper," Beckman says.
When he was not reading the day's news, Uncle Gene would serve as the playful jokester of the family.
"He couldn’t stand to see a baby in one of those wooden play pens," Beckman says. "He always wanted to play with the kids. He would say, 'No baby deserves to be behind bars.'"
Beckman was only 6 years old when her mother told her the plane taking Smith to his new post at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska had crashed into Mount Gannett and was missing. Less than two weeks later on Dec. 4, 1952, her family received his death certificate, his body still unrecovered.
"Not having a funeral was hard," Beckman says. "Around the holidays we'd put wreaths on a gravestone we had made for Uncle Gene, but he was still not home. It was hard for us, for all of the families of the people on the plane, to find peace."
Though memories of Smith remained strong as the years passed, his family never stopped waiting for a sign of his missing plane. That sign came in June 2012, when the Alaska National Guard discovered the crash site during a training mission.
As remains were uncovered by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), Mike and Peg, Smith’s two remaining living siblings, gave samples of DNA with hopes of finding a match. At the end of May 2014, that match was made with a small fragment of skull.
"I always thought that if they found him, I'd be able to identify him," Beckman says. "I didn't think there would be so little left."
Finding Uncle Gene after 62 years was bittersweet for his family. Peg died shortly after the crash site was found, and the identification was made almost a year to the day after Mike's death.
"Mike would always keep Gene’s nameplate and picture in his room," says Terry Coen, the wife of Smith's nephew Jim. “Bringing Gene home is wonderful, but it hurts to know that Gene's siblings, especially Mike, couldn’t know that they finally found their brother."
Though that small piece of bone, now even smaller after DNA testing, was all that was found of Smith, he was brought home with full military honors. His coffin, wrapped in an American flag, was escorted by a military Col. from the JPAC headquarters in Hawaii to Philadelphia International Airport.
Upon landing, Smith was greeted by an Air Force Honor Guard and members of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society (VVMS).
"We all saluted," says Tom Nienal, a member of PVVMS. "If we could have, we would have shaken hands. To us, that means welcome home."
In addition, 19 members of Smith's family, including nieces, nephews and cousins of all ages, gathered to bring him back to his home. They hugged, smiled, laughed and cried tears of joy as the procession of police, military representatives, and family led Smith back home. The clouds overhead cleared, leaving a shinning blue sky to guide them.
Uncle Gene will be laid to rest under full military honors, complete with a 21-gun salute. He will be placed beside his parents and most of his siblings at All Saints Cemetery in an extra plot his family did not even know existed until around the time he was found.
Smith is one of 17 service members that have been recovered and positively identified from the crash. Thirty-five passengers and crewmen have yet to be discovered. As JPAC continues its investigation, Beckman hopes that all of the missing people on that flight are found so their families can have some closure.
"We will finally be putting him to rest the right way," Beckman says. "Every person on that plane deserves that…their final place should not be on the side of that mountain."