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Photo by Correspondent / Stephen Huba A banner with the photo of 1st Lt. Richard Horrigan flies outside Chester American Legion Post 121 in Chester, W.Va., on Sunday, the day of his funeral. The WWII fighter pilot died while flying missions in the final days of the war.

CHESTER, W.Va. — The city of Chester turned out in force Sunday to welcome home 1st Lt. Richard W. Horrigan, a World War II fighter pilot who died while flying in the final days of the war and whose body has been lost to investigators for decades.

“My mother has hoped for this all her life” said Dr. Richard Horrigan, son of Lieutenant Horrigan, during a funeral service at the Arner Funeral Chapel.

She hoped he would be found alive. To finally have this closure – it’s just amazing,” he said.

Richard Horrigan’s niece, Karen Conklin of Liberty, was also present at the Sunday service.

“Walking down Carolina Avenue and seeing all the yellow flags and ribbons was amazing,” Conklin said. “We are overwhelmed by the wonderful outpouring of support, which has been sustained. It was a roller coaster of emotions.

Lt. Horrigan’s remains were interred with his wife, Dorothy Conklin Horrigan, in the family plot at Locust Hill Cemetery after a procession down Carolina Avenue. She died in 2007.

Residents of Chester lined the main street, decorated with American flags and yellow ribbons, to see Lieutenant Horrigan at his final resting place despite a threat of rain.

Horrigan’s story became a cause celebre in Chester after it was announced in February that his remains had been identified – 77 years after his P-47D Thunderbolt was shot down behind enemy lines in eastern Germany.

Horrigan, son of Cornelius and Elizabeth Horrigan, was born in Chester in 1921 and graduated from Chester High School in 1938. He was working at Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery when he enlisted in the US Army Air Forces.

He spent about two years training to be a fighter pilot, received his commission in May 1944, and was sent overseas in December as a pilot with the 22nd Fighter Squadron, 36th Fighter Group, 9th Army Air Force .

Horrigan was flying dangerous missions from Niedermendig Air Base, a captured area in Germany, with orders to strafe enemy German planes stationed at Alt Loennewitz airfield, according to the Defense POW medical examiner’s report / MIA AccountingAgency.

“These planes presented an inviting target, and at approximately 3:30 p.m. 1st Lt. Horrigan joined several other pilots in strafing these planes. …His plane crashed during this action, likely from anti-aircraft fire,” says the report.

Horrigan’s wingman, 1st Lt. John L. Reddy Jr., reported flying past Horrigan as they made their final strafing run of the day. He peeked out the right side of his cockpit and saw an explosion on the ground, the report said.

“I didn’t see Lt. Horrigan pull off his strafing pass, so definitely that explosion was his plane,” Reddy said.

Horrigan presumably died instantly about three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. His family in Chester learned of his MIA status on VE Day, said Bonnie Horrigan Slade, another niece of Horrigan.

“He was supposed to come home” she says.

Horrigan was a casualty not only of World War II, but of the Cold War as well.

Initially, Horrigan’s remains could not be recovered because the airfield was behind enemy lines, but once political realities hardened, recovery by the American Graves Registration Command became nearly impossible.

After the war, the area where Horrigan perished came under the control of the Red Army and eventually became part of Soviet-controlled East Germany.

“The peculiarity of this case is that he was on the communist side. We could not enter there to collect his remains. Katie Rasdorf, researcher at History Flight Inc., said.

History Flight Inc., a non-profit organization based in Fredericksburg, Virginia, was commissioned by the US government to locate and excavate Horrigan’s remains in the summer of 2019.

Horrigan was declared unrecoverable in 1953, and by then the U.S. military was in the thick of the Korean War, Rasdorf said.

Rasdorf said the US Department of Defense has only prioritized such cases for the past 15 years. There are about 73,000 unrecovered MIA/KIA service members from World War II alone, she said.

History Flight lobbied Congress and received funding for such operations under the 2009 Defense Authorization Act, she said. The year Horrigan’s remains were found, six other losses in Europe were being investigated by History Flight.

After recovery in 2019, Horrigan’s remains were transferred to the DPAA laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for analysis. The lab scientists used dental and anthropological evidence, and the armed forces medical examiner was able to make a positive identification using DNA analysis.

Dr Horrigan, 76, first learned of the recovery efforts in 2018, when he was asked for a DNA sample. A retired anesthesiologist from San Francisco, he believes DNA evidence was an essential piece of the recovery puzzle.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Horrigan said he hoped his father’s case would bring hope to other families of missing veterans.

“I think it would be great if this was widely publicized, so other families can keep hope alive,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Lt. Horrigan’s remains were brought to Chester from Pittsburgh on Friday, accompanied by a motorcade from the Legion Riders, Patriot Guard Riders, Chester Police Department and Hancock County Sheriff’s Department.

Along with Boy Scout Troop 12, they accompanied the procession down Carolina Avenue to Locust Hill Cemetery. Chester American Legion Post 121 and the Chester Lions Club arranged the decorations and logistics.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., sent a representative to Sunday’s funeral. She presented an American flag to Horrigan.

“The people of West Virginia have fought more wars, shed more blood, and lost more lives in the cause of freedom than most other states,” Manchin’s statement says. “We always did the heavy lifting and never complained.”

John Paulsen, described as the oldest living relative who knew Lieutenant Horrigan, said he remembered his “Uncle Dick” while growing up in Chester because they were close in age.

“We spent almost every weekend at the Horrigan house. Uncle Dick was put in charge of me,” said Paulsen.

Paulsen said he had distinct memories of walking with Horrigan along Carolina Avenue and reading Sunday newspaper comic strips with him. One Christmas, Paulsen said he received an electric train, but couldn’t play with it because Horrigan and other family members were too busy playing with it.

“He was a nice guy, very funny” he said, noting that the last time he saw Horrigan was at a wedding in Pittsburgh.

Slade said Horrigan was known for his joviality and Irish spirit.

“I have always been curious and proud of the uncle I never met”, she says. “I considered him a ‘Top Gun’ aviator.”

“When I heard his remains were coming home, my tears flowed and flowed. I was so overjoyed,” she says.

Stephen Huba is a correspondent for the Lisbon Morning Journal, a sister publication to the Tribune Chronicle.

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