80-year trip back home nearing a close for WWII pilot

Sneed exclusive: Remains of Lt. Roy Coulson Harms, who was killed over a bombing raid in Romania in 1943, are returning to family in Grafton, Wis.

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Lt. Roy Coulson Harms,

Lt. Roy Coulson Harms,


Hero. A definition.

In fiction, a hero can fly.

In reality, a hero rarely leaves the ground … unless he is buried under it.

The heroic “fly and die” war story of the U.S. Army Air Corps pilot Roy Coulson Harms, killed in a European WWII air raid in 1943, will finally end next month.

It will be the last leg of his 80-year trek back home to Grafton, Wisconsin.

It has been a very long road.

Let’s back up.

In 2011, Chicago attorney Bill Coulson, a military war buff and great nephew of Lt. Harms,  began a personal trek to the grisly Pacific battlegrounds of World War II. 

Coulson, a former U.S. attorney,  would eventually bring comfort to families of soldiers killed or wounded in World War II, an avatar of lost U.S. military dog tags and memorabilia found on the Pacific Islands’ killing fields. 

“Hard to believe islands so beautiful once harbored such horror,” he told Sneed.

On May 6, Coulson’s journey to comfort World War II families will come full circle with the homecoming of his namesake great uncle, a 26-year-old U.S. Army Air Corps pilot buried in a mass war grave in Europe and unidentified for 80 years.

“I never met my namesake ‘Uncle Roy,’ ” said Bill Coulson. “His loss was horrific, the family grief deep.”


Chicago attorney William Roy Coulson, the great nephew of WWII war hero Lt. Roy Coulson Harms, worked for years to get the remains identified and returned.


His parents, mired in the frightful fog of war for the rest of their lives, were never to see their son again. No handkerchief would be big enough to stem their sorrow, no arms wide enough to comfort them. 

Finally, a successful search for Lt. Harms’ identity was due to a DNA sample provided by his last remaining sister, Laura, who was in her late 90s when contacted by the U.S. Army. “She died two months after providing the fortuitous DNA saliva swab,” said Coulson. “But Laura also had a request: her brother be buried at his home and not Arlington National Cemetery,” he added.

The story of Lt. Roy C.Harms’ journey home is a tale of the timelessness of war, the endless and agonizing wait for location, retrieval and official identification.

Killed while flying a B-24 Liberator bombing the Nazi oil fields at Ploesti, Romania, Lt. Harms was one of a crew of nine who didn’t evacuate the plane. 

The town’s first Eagle Scout, Roy Harms was remembered by late Grafton townsfolk as a beloved Boy Scout leader, a hard worker in his family’s general store, according to a letter written in 2002 by LeRoy Pollen, an old friend, now deceased, who witnessed Harms’ special hometown “farewell” the day he left for war.

“Roy decided to make a slight detour on his final flight overseas to England in his B-24 Liberator by circling back over Grafton, dropping a packet of cloth containing a bullet which wound up hidden in a nearby haystack,” Pollen once said. “He was flying so low it felt like he was going to fly right through our house.”

“Ironically, the battle that cost him his life was a low-level mission,” said Coulson. “We all wondered later if he was practicing when he flew over Grafton.”

Unfortunately, Harms’ trip home was longer than the life he might have lived. 

In 1948, several years after the war, the U.S. graves registration command began exhuming unidentified bodies of soldiers buried in mass graves.

The soldiers killed in the Ploesti air raid were initially buried in Romania — at the time enemy territory — then moved and reburied in Belgium.

Then, In 2013, funding for DNA technology was gearing up to identify the bodily remains of WWII soldiers.

Last August, Harms’ relatives were notified the official positive  I.D. was complete. Harms was coming home. 

Late last year, the Army agreed to send the remains to the Mueller Funeral home in Grafton and pay $9,000 for the burial,” added Coulson. “

“Our family will now be able to march with his casket,” he said. And the whole town is coming out to honor him,” said Coulson. 

Posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Purple Heart, Lt. Harms is now slated to be buried with full military honors alongside his parents at Grafton’s Woodlawn cemetery.

“After 80 years, he and his crew will not be forgotten,” added Coulson.

    In 2012, Coulson returned to a family in North Carolina a dog tag lost from a soldier who fought at Guadalcanal’s Alligator Creek battle in the Pacific; and in the same year brought Chicago top cop Garry McCarthy a piece of barbed wire from Bloody Ridge, where his seriously wounded father had fought at Guadalcanal and where the Japanese were tripped up by barbed wire.

“Although I like to bring history to life, my late uncle’s service to his country Is certainly something more gripping than returning dog tags and barbed wire to veterans’ families,” he said.

“Thank God my uncle is finally resting in peace.”


Saturday birthdays: actress Emma Watson, 33; actor Seth Rogen, 41, and actress Emma Thompson, 64. Sunday birthdays: actress Anya Taylor-Joy, 27; actor/comic Martin Lawrence, 58, and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 76. .... and a belated birthday to Carol’s Tom Carroll, an ageless hubby of nearly 50 years. Oops!

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