A gift beyond man’s explanation is God’s gift

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Missing flyers make it home almost 70 years after they crashed into a mountainside on the small island of Papua New Guinea thanks to Richard Knieriemen’s help in identifying their plane

By Greg Summers

Richard Knieriemen (pronounced Ka-near-i-men) knows how to fix airplanes. 


His perchant for it paid off several times when he served in Papua New Guinea as an aircraft engineer/mechanic for Wycliffe Bible Translators from 1982-89.  

Now retired, Richard can still recall the days of getting calls from downed pilots who were stranded in dense rainforests and rugged terrain.

His wife, Diana Knieriemen, can tell it better than he can. The couple has been married for 45 years.

She said every time it happened – before telling a pilot how to fix an ailing aircraft – her husband headed inside his small office, shut the door and hit his knees in prayer. 

“And every time, he was able to tell the pilot what to do to get back home,” Diana said. 

Richard considers that ability as his gift from God.

“It’s very fulfilling, humbling to see God use us for his work,” Richard said. “It’s something only God can do.” 

But what grew from a talent for getting flyers back home – is God’s gift to him.

Thanks to Richard, two more are back on American soil. 

The remains of two missing World War II airmen killed when their A-20 Havoc bomber crashed into a South Pacific mountain range almost 70 years ago were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19.

How God used him to find U.S. Army Air Force pilot 2nd Lt. Valorie L. Pollard, 25,  of California and Sgt. Dominick J. Licari, 31, of Frankfort, N.Y., a gunner, is something Richard still can’t explain.

But he doesn’t try. Only God, Richard said, can do that.

The only thing  Richard knows is that in helping identify their two-man plane, he helped identify the two flyers, who were officially declared dead in 1946.

The last time Pollard and Licari were heard from was March 13, 1944, while returning from a bombing raid on a Japanese airfield. Pollard’s first combat mission was his last.

Low on fuel and flying in bad weather with limited visibility, their A-20 was one of three aircraft lost after a low-level bombing mission when it crashed into a mountainside in the rugged Finisterre Range.

Despite repeated searches, the missing planes were never found, that was until December 1982, while the Knieriemens were serving in Papua New Guinea. An island country in the western Pacific, Papua New Guinea is north of Australia and just south of the equator.            

Wreckage found

Richard said in 1982, Gary Fields of Summer Institute of Linguistics (the international arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators) was assigned to build a house for a family coming there to start Bible translation work. 

Villagers told Fields about three aircraft wreck sites near Saidor that were avoided and considered haunted. Richard said Fields also learned about an elderly man who witnessed the planes crashing. 

The villagers then took Fields to two of the crash sites. The third site was in a more remote area.

“It’s kind of funny. The people of remote Papua New Guinea take and date everything to the war. They knew there would be some interest in the wreckage,” Diana said.

“I knew one of the translators in the area and told him to keep his ears open.”  Richard said.

Richard said after learning about the wrecking sites, he encouraged Fields to go back and get photos of the downed planes.

“I told him (Fields) where the serial numbers would be and how to find them,” Knieriemen said. “I helped identify the wreckage at six sites. I went to five of them, but this one, I never saw.” 

Fields found the serial number “252085” on the tail of one of the planes and took photos. 

He gave the documentation to Richard, who passed it to Richard Hoy, curator of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) National Museum. Richard said Hoy was able to verify the wreckage as a missing aircraft and passed the information along to the U.S. Army.

In 1983, a team from the U.S. Defense Department came to Papua New Guinea, but couldn’t find the site. They contacted Richard for the coordinates.

“It’s very rugged country,” he said. “Most of the ground in that area is at about a 60-degree slope.”

The Knieriemens left Papua New Guinea in June 1989. 

The next month, a team from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (CILHI) visited the site with Hoy, but no remains could be found. 

That organization is dedicated to accounting for Americans lost during the war. 

An excavation team retuned in  1999, but still found no remains. 

In 2008, a team from the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Command returned to Papua New Guinea. The wreckage site was surveyed again and recommended for recovery. 

Remains found

Four years later, in March/April 2012, another excavation team recovered human remains at the site, 

Licari’s dog tags, and personal items (broken sunglasses, coins, zippers, a thermos, trench knife scabbard, buttons and clasps) were also found.  

According to Justin Taylan, founder of  Pacific Wrecks, the DOD requested a DNA sample from Licari’s brother, August Licari. 

A non-profit, one-man operation, Taylan’s Pacific Wrecks project locates undiscovered World War II U.S. airplane wreckage in an effort to learn the fates of the thousands of American airmen listed as missing in the Pacific Theater. 

According to the DOD, of the more than 400,000 U.S. service members killed in World War II, some 73,000 have never been recovered or identified.

NBCLA.com reported that DNA samples were also taken from Pollard’s second cousins in Sacramento, but the remains were so badly burned they couldn’t be positively identified. 

Out of the loop

Still, Richard had no clues about what happened with the wreckage until he was contacted by Taylan in August 2013. 

Evidently Taylan had been trying to contact the Knieriemens for some time and filled in much of the missing details.

“I had no idea,” Richard said. “After giving them the coordinates, they told me if they found the crash site, I’d probably never hear from them again. I didn’t, so I figured that was the case.”

The remains of Licari that could be identified were returned to the United States and buried Aug. 6 in his hometown of Frankfort, N.Y.

“I saw the New York ceremony on YouTube,” he said. “All those people lining the highway, it was very moving.” 

The rest of Licari’s remains were buried as a group with Pollard’s remains at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 19.

The Knieriemens found out about the Arlington ceremony on Sept. 16 when Taylan called. The Licari and Pollard families wanted them there, though it required Richard’s carpal tunnel surgery to be postponed. 

One of their daughters, Dana Peifer, and her husband, Matt, live in Springfield, Va. 

Matt Peifer, Diana said, is a U.S. Secret Service agent. 

Their other daughter, Debbie Russell, and her husband Kevin, live in Lancaster. Kevin Russell is finance and budget director at University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. 

“God’s been all in this thing from the start,” she said. “We had a place to stay when we got there.” 

While Richard has gotten a positive reaction from other families who gained closure from airplane  wreckage he helped identify in Papua New Guinea, he said it was different this time.

“Seeing all those people, they were just so kind,” he said in a cracking voice. “Not one of them who came up to me was able to finish speaking. They all broke down.”   

Unexpected surprise 

The Knieriemens didn’t meet the families of Licari and Pollard that day. 

Outside the chapel, Richard said a smiling man approached the couple and asked, “Sir, are you Richard Kneiriemen?” 

Richard said he was taken aback for good reason.

“He knew how to pronounce my name, and I said, ‘why, yes I am,’” Richard said. 

The man then introduced himself and shook Richard’s hand.

It was retired Army Maj. Gen. W. Montague “Q” Winfield. 

Winfield is the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs.

Winfield is responsible for leading the Department of Defense’s worldwide commitment to the fullest possible accounting of Americans missing in action from all conflicts.

“He said, ‘You don’t know me, but I know you, know all about you and what you have done,’” said Richard. 

Winfield then presented Richard with a DOD “Coin of Excellence” for his role in helping get the two servicemen back home.

“I was just stunned,”  he said. 

These days, that coin is kept in a small office inside the Knieriemen home.

“I guess one of these days, the grandkids will be trying to decide who gets it,” Diana said laughing.

Richard, who suffers for Parkinson’s disease, held the shiny blue and gold coin in his good hand and stared at it, smiling. That hand, and one that doesn’t quite work as well as it once did, has tightened and loosened more than its share of airplane parts. After all, getting stranded flyers back home, is his gift.

“You know, I can’t really explain any of this,” he said.

But Richard doesn’t try. 

Only God, he said, can do that.


Contact Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156