A military honor guard salutes the remains of a fallen service member on the runway of an airport next to an airplane.

Thomas’s remains arrive in Syracuse in May 2023. (Provided)

Eight Decades After His Death in WWII, an MIA Alum Comes Home

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In May 2023, Lieutenant John Blakeslee Thomas ’43 finally received the funeral his family had long awaited

By Lindsay Lennon

For generations—the eight decades since his plane was shot down over Romania during World War II—the family of Lieutenant John Blakeslee Thomas ’43 didn’t definitively know his fate.

After participating in a massive airstrike on vital German fuel resources in August 1943, Thomas had been officially listed as missing in action at age 23.

But recently, advances in DNA technology allowed his remains to be identified—confirming that, as had long been presumed, he did indeed perish in that fateful battle along with hundreds of other airmen.

A photo of Lieutenant John B. Thomas from World War 2
Thomas in his flying gear.

And in May 2023, Thomas’s hometown was finally able to give him the grand military sendoff he has long deserved.

“To honor Uncle John, and to be notified that he’s been recovered—it’s closure for the family that none of us ever expected,” says nephew Ed Thomas, whose father was John’s twin brother.

Like many men of his era, Thomas had left college to enlist in the military—interrupting his studies in what was then known as the College of Agriculture at age 20 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps (now the Air Force).

A black-and-white photo of a man and woman standing next to each other in the 1940s.
With fiancée Bunny Emerson ’43.

Just months before his death, he’d become engaged to his college sweetheart.

His betrothal to Arts & Sciences student and Delta Delta Delta sorority member Helena “Bunny” Emerson ’43 was announced in the Daily Sun in April 1943.

The mission in which Thomas gave his life, Operation Tidal Wave, was a high-stakes one: a broad daylight, low-altitude bombing of oil fields known as “Hitler’s Gas Station,” a major fuel supplier to the Nazis and other Axis forces.

Thomas was among a handful of the mission’s many casualties whose remains went unidentified for decades.

After his parents were notified that their son was MIA, Ed says, they sent letters to anyone they hoped might provide answers—including Congress, the Department of War, and his commanding officer.

“It must have been agonizing as a parent to know your child has been lost—and go to your grave never knowing that your son has been recovered,” says Ed, who has visited the Hill to see Thomas’s name on the memorial to Cornellians lost in WWII.

In 2018, the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began what would be a years-long process in which Thomas’s remains were finally identified via DNA.

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His casket arrived in Syracuse in mid-May 2023, greeted at the airport by a military honor guard. It was then transported about an hour west to his tiny hometown of North Rose, NY, where the family held calling hours.

The next day, May 20—what would have been Thomas’s 103rd birthday­—he was finally laid to rest, next to his twin brother.

Ed says the family was touched by the crowds that attended the calling hours and burial service, many of whom were local veterans who didn’t know the Thomases.

A list of names on the wall of the Cornell War Memorial
Thomas’s sacrifice, and that of other Cornellians who lost their lives in military service, is honored in Anabel Taylor.

And when the casket was transferred from the funeral home to the cemetery, residents along the route stood in their front yards with American flags as a gesture of respect.

“Before, it was a flag on the wall and some medals,” Ed observes of the memorials to his uncle’s service. “But now, we have a grave we can visit. There’s a greater realization of the sacrifice he has given—and you feel that much more blessed, knowing you’ve completed the circle.”

Top: Thomas’s remains arrive in Syracuse in May 2023. (Anabel Taylor memorial photos by Sreang Hok / Cornell University; all others provided.)

Published July 21, 2023


  1. Steve Feldman

    True American and Cornell hero.

  2. Allan D. Mitchell

    John’s mother and my mother were friends and as a young boy 7
    years old,visited the family farm quite often. On these visits
    I had the opportunity to get to know John and found him very
    likeable as he entertained me.
    When he went to Cornell and off to the Air Force I lost
    touch with him.

  3. Elias J. Kontanis, Class of 2004

    Thank you for posting this story. Service members like Lieutenant John Blakeslee Thomas, gave their life to make this the greatest Nation. The U.S. Government’s commitment to the fullest possible accounting of U.S. personnel who are unaccounted-for from our Nation’s past conflicts is important. This commitment conveys a clear message that we will never forget their sacrifice. I had the privilege of serving as a forensic anthropologist, field recovery leader, and DNA coordinator for the DPAA’s predecessor – the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) from 2004-2008. This was my first job after completing a PhD in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in September 2004. A few weeks later, I found myself in Laos searching for and ultimately recovering two lost aircrew. Many recovery missions followed. It was an honor to be part of this mission for four years.

  4. Ed Feinberg, Class of 1961

    Joining the Air Force after graduating , and after the Viet Nam war started, I saw friends go over and become MIA’s. Often in these six decades I wondered what happened to them. Unlike WWII, Americans never seemed to honor Viet Nam veterans and treated them with disrespect and anger even. It is at least comforting to know the military still cares about its lost personnel.

  5. Carr Ferguson, Class of 1952

    John’s officer cap shows the “50-mission crush” I remember my uncle, James Ellison wearing proudly to show his survival of numerous WW II missions. The custom may have started when headphones had to be shoved down over caps. John must have been a true air combat veteran.

  6. John Meyer

    I am the lucky Nephew of John and Ha his his name and was born on September 23rd and given his name By my mother who was the sister of John (Helen Marie Thomas) I went on to be a Navy Seal team class #31 I am very proud to be named after my uncle John Thomas and am proud of being a U.S. Navy SEAL

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