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Remains of pilot shot down in WWII come to LI for burial

Beside her husband James, Barbara O'Brien of Stony

Beside her husband James, Barbara O'Brien of Stony Brook places her hands on the flag-draped coffin containing the remains of her father, Robert L. Mains, at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

In April of 1945, with Hitler’s defeat in World War II imminent, Lt. Robert L. Mains climbed into the pilot’s seat of a B-24 Liberator and joined a wave of bombers that flew toward Germany, hoping to hasten the time he could cradle his new baby daughter once more.

He finally came home Wednesday — long dead but not forgotten.

Mains perished when his plane was shot down south of Hamburg, just a month before Germany’s surrender. His remains were identified by forensic scientists using DNA evidence, 72 years after his death. They arrived Wednesday evening in a flag-draped coffin at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, for burial at Calverton National Cemetery on Saturday.

“Welcome home, Dad,” said his daughter, Barbara O’Brien, 73, of Stony Brook, as she caressed the casket’s surface on the airport tarmac moments after its arrival.

“Since I got the call, it’s been so surreal,” said O’Brien, a psychotherapist who was just hours old when her father left for the war. “My mother told me he only got to hold me once before he went off to fight.”

Mains was 27-year-old pilot with the 714th Bombardment Squadron/448th Bombardment Group based in England when his and about 400 other bombers flew on an April 4, 1945, mission to attack air bases in northern Germany.

German fighter planes knifed through the formation over Ludwigslust, Germany, causing an explosion on Mains’ aircraft that sent it into a rapid dive, and the aircraft’s only survivor “bouncing around the flight deck like a rubber ball,” according to a Department of Defense report.

American officials were unable to find Mains’ body during a 1948 search, but new evidence emerged during a subsequent excavation in 2007. DNA recovered from leg-bone fragments recovered there matched that of two relatives of Mains’ mother, O’Brien said.

O’Brien said Mains met her mother, Alice Powers, while they worked at the Rochester-based Will Corp. Alice Mains’ story was like that of many WWII brides: married at 21, a mother by 22, and a widow by 23. Alice Mains and her daughter moved in with her parents on Manhattan’s West 123rd Street. O’Brien’s mother died in Hicksville four years ago.

O’Brien has no memory of her father. But she learned a bit about him from war letters her mother kept tucked away. In one, he said he wanted his wife and daughter to cheer themselves with festive corsages.

“It told me that even though he was in the middle of a war, he was still caring and loving of me and my mother,” she said. “That made me know he was defined by his courage.”

And she said she felt his presence throughout her life. She recalled an incident decades ago when a catamaran accident threw her — a nonswimmer — into the waters off Florida.

“I remember sliding out of the boat and thinking, ‘This is how I’m going to die,’” she recalled. “And it was just at that time I thought my father is watching over me.”

But she never thought the father she loved but never knew would ever come home.

Then her phone rang in August. The remains of her father had been identified.

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