The last time Helen Simmons saw her older brother Max. W. Lower was in 1942 at the train station in Ogden.
“That was the first time I saw my dad cry,” Simmons said Thursday, “was when he hugged my brother goodbye.”
Soon, 77 years after that visit, Simmons will get to bury her brother. The U.S. Department of Defense announced Thursday that the remains of the man who became U.S. Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. Max W. Lower, 23, of Lewiston in Cache County, had been identified.
Services are scheduled for Nov. 23 in Lewiston, a Utah town near the Idaho line. Members of the Utah National Guard are to serve as pallbearers.
Lower was the radio operator on a B-24 Liberator bomber nicknamed “Old Baldy.” It was shot down Aug. 1, 1943, over Ploiesti, Romania during Operation Tidal Wave, the war’s largest bombing mission on the Ploiesti oil field and refineries, which supplied the Nazi war effort.
Lower's plane was one of 177 bombers based in Italy and Libya that flew the mission; 53 aircraft and 660 air crewmen were lost.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the Romanian government recovered the bodies of 216 Americans killed in the raid, but only 27 were identifiable. The unidentified bodies first were buried in a Romanian military cemetery; after the war, the remains were moved to an American military cemetery in Belgium. In 2017, the DPAA began exhuming unknowns believed to have died in Operation Tidal Wave and sending the bodies for laboratory analysis.
Simmons, 90, said her father was a World War I veteran. After that war, Simmons’ parents moved to a dairy farm in Twin Falls, Idaho, where Lower was born. The family later settled in Lewiston.
Lower graduated from North Cache High School, worked during the Great Depression for the Civilian Conservation Corps building erosion walls in Logan Canyon, Simmons said, and attended what was then called Utah State Agricultural College for two years. He joined the Army Air Forces about three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“He said, ‘I would sooner fly over [the war] than trudge through it,’” Simmons recalled in a phone interview Thursday.
After receiving training in Topeka, Kan., Lower got a five-day pass. He spent the first two days on that train to Ogden, where he spent less than a day with his family, Simmons said, before taking another train back to Topeka.
Lower’s family knew that he had been deployed to the Middle East, his sister said, but they could not be told more than that. Simmons said her brother, whose bomber group was stationed in Libya, wrote home saying he had been on more than 30 missions and was preparing for one more big one. He then could go home.
One night, in August 1943, Simmons said, her mother turned on the radio and heard a report of the Ploiesti oil fields being bombed. She worried about her son.
Two weeks later, a car arrived at the home and handed a letter to Lower and Simmons’ father. It said Lower had been declared missing in action.
“Then it became like a perpetual funeral,” Simmons said, “people coming and coming and coming.”
Lower’s status later was changed to presumed dead. Then, after U.S. personnel and the Red Cross recovered Old Baldy’s wreckage in 1948, Lower’s status was changed to killed in action.
He was 23 years old.
Simmons said her mother kept a correspondence with families of the other nine men aboard Old Baldy, and she made some inquiries through the years with the U.S. government about what happened to her son and where his remains were. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the family learned more about what happened.
In December 2008, Simmons said, she was talking to a friend in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Logan. Simmons asked about holiday plans, and the friend said her son had just been transferred from a U.S. Embassy in Japan to the one in Bucharest, Romania.
Simmons told the story of her brother and asked whether the diplomat might be able to help find some information about Lower.
The next month, Simmons said, she received a letter from the Romanian government.
While previous Allied bombing runs dropped munitions from high above the ground, the planes in Operation Tidal Wave flew as low as the treetops. The letter from the Romanian government cited an eyewitness — a monk from a monastery near the oil fields.
The monk reported Old Baldy flew into the sights of an 88 mm anti-aircraft gun, which fired a shell that pierced the nose. The plane landed on top of the gun crew, the government reported. “According to the American Air Museum, it was an 80 mm anti-aircraft gun that struck Old Baldy at just “30 feet or less.”)
It wasn’t until 2017 that the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency asked for a DNA sample from Simmons and her lone surviving brother. Simmons received news of the positive identification on Oct. 16 of this year.
“I’m just so grateful,” Simmons said Thursday, “to our country and the government and the Defense Department and the manner in which they go about trying to find remains [for] families, because once you lose someone, you wonder what happened.”
One of Simmons’ cousins, William D. Lower Jr., also died while serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.
The remains of other Old Baldy crew members have slowly been getting identified. The remains of 1st Lt. Joseph E. Finneran, of Jamaica Plain, Mass., the plane’s bombardier, were identified earlier this year.
Max Lower is the third World War II veteran from Utah whose remains have been identified this year. In March, the remains of Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Lynn W. Hadfield were buried at the Utah Veterans Cemetery & Memorial Park in Bluffdale.
The remains of Marine Pfc. Robert J. Hatch are scheduled for burial Dec. 14 in Bountiful. He was killed alongside about 1,000 other U.S. service members in a 1943 battle against Japanese fighters for the small island of Betio.