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World War II pilot from Tacoma comes home 73 years later

An Army honor detail bears the casket of First Lt. Leonard Reed Farron on Wednesday as drummers sing him out of the Puyallup Tribe Youth Center after his funeral. Farron was last seen Oct. 15, 1942, at the controls of a P-39 aircraft before he failed to return from a strafing mission over Tassafaronga, Guadalcanal. His remains were recently recovered and identified.
An Army honor detail bears the casket of First Lt. Leonard Reed Farron on Wednesday as drummers sing him out of the Puyallup Tribe Youth Center after his funeral. Farron was last seen Oct. 15, 1942, at the controls of a P-39 aircraft before he failed to return from a strafing mission over Tassafaronga, Guadalcanal. His remains were recently recovered and identified. csailor@thenewstribune.com

A warrior who fell from the sky has made his final trip home.

It took him 73 years.

On Wednesday, the flag-draped casket bearing the remains of U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Leonard R. Farron was carried into the gymnasium of the Puyallup Tribe’s youth center.

Farron, who grew up on Tacoma’s Tideflats, came from a notable heritage, being the great-great grandnephew of famed Nisqually arbitrator Chief Leschi.

The military honor detail placed his casket before a row of Farron’s cousins. They are the last living family who remember the handsome 23-year-old World War II fighter pilot.

Girls when they last saw Farron, they now are gray-haired elders.

“I had a feeling he was coming home,” cousin Josie McCloud said.

LOST OVER GUADALCANAL

Farron was last seen piloting his P-39 fighter over the Pacific island of Guadalcanal on Oct. 15, 1942. The United States was at war with Japan.

Farron was on strafing mission. He and his squadron mates were taking heavy anti-aircraft fire. Enemy fighters were swarming the area.

When Farron’s mates landed minutes later, he was not with them.

Two months later, a soldier found a crashed P-39 with a tail number closely matching Farron’s plane. The body of the pilot was in the cockpit. Fighting was still raging and the remains couldn’t be recovered.

When Farron was reported missing, the news devastated his family in Tacoma.

“It was one of the biggest fears in World War II,” cousin Frankie McCloud said. “Your kid’s not coming back.”

Leschi was not Farron’s only notable ancestor. His mother, Emma Kautz Farron, was a descendant of August Kautz, an army officer who served at Fort Steilacoom in the 1850s.

Josie and Frankie McCloud (the two cousins married brothers) were younger than Farron but were the only people at Wednesday’s service to have memories of him.

“I liked to harass him,” Josie McCloud recalled with a laugh before the start of the service. “He used to have a Model A with a rumble seat in the back and canvas top. We’d flatten his tires.”

Farron would let the girls ride in the rumble seat when they went clam digging at Redondo Beach.

Both women said Farron had an interest in flying long before he joined the military.

“He taught himself how to fly,” Frankie said. First in gliders and then airplanes. “He sold newspapers to pay for his lessons.”

He had a natural talent for mechanics and music, the women recalled.

Farron, a Stadium High School grad, was attending the University of Washington when war broke out. When he was drafted, Farron enlisted in the Army Air Forces.

After the war, the family expected to recover his remains. On Jan. 23, 1948, Farron’s father sent a letter to the Army, requesting the return of his son’s body.

“We want him brought home,” he wrote.

But on Jan. 28, 1949, a military review board declared Farron “non-recoverable.”

Farron’s parents died without burying their son.

COMING HOME

The mission of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is to determine the fate of missing U.S. military personnel. More than 83,000 Americans remain missing from World War II alone.

After a historian discovered new information, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command investigation team traveled to Guadalcanal in 2014 in search of Farron’s crash site.

They interviewed local residents and found the wreckage.

In early 2015, a DPAA recovery team excavated the crash site and recovered the wreckage, Farron’s remains and his personal military gear.

Along with circumstantial evidence, scientists used mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched two maternal cousins, and dental analysis to identify Farron.

Connie Smith was one of those cousins. She grew up knowing Farron’s parents but was too young to know him well.

“I was chosen because my DNA matched his,” Smith said Wednesday sitting next to her McCloud cousins. The Army considers Smith next of kin.

“We had a choice of where we wanted to have him buried and we chose here because this was his home,” said Smith, now a Florida resident.

‘ON BEHALF OF A GRATEFUL NATION ...’

When the service began, Puyallup Tribal councilman Dave Bean and Father Patrick Thowy sprinkled water on the casket using cedar boughs.

Bean thanked veterans attending the funeral and noted the high rate of service Native Americans have in the U.S. military.

“Because our men are warriors we can be here today to practice our traditional ways and sing our songs,” Bean said.

A row of drummers then sang a warrior song to honor Farron. A blanket was presented to Smith.

Army Capt. Eduardo Castro presented two medals, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, to Smith. They were reissues of medals awarded to Farron posthumously — the Silver Star was for a mission he flew the day before he died.

Along with seven other fighters, Farron attacked seven Japanese destroyers and six transport ships on Oct. 14, 1942.

In bad weather and darkness approaching, “He divebombed in the face of intense antiaircraft fire, and then made repeated strafing attacks,” wrote Brig. Gen. A. J. Barnett in the original commendation.

Four of Farron’s squad mates were unable to find their way home but Farron returned to his base despite the darkness and heavy rain.

“His gallant perseverance and fortitude were an important factor in the successful accomplishment of this mission,” Barnett wrote.

After the ceremony, the mourners made the short drive to the tribal cemetery for a graveside service just feet from the grave of Chief Leschi.

The honor detail ceremoniously folded the flag and presented it to Smith.

“On behalf of a grateful nation …,” 1st Lt. Felipe Morales began, leaning in close to Smith.

As family members dropped dirt into Farron’s grave, a stone-gray Air Force C-17 flew high overhead on a routine flight.

Down below a light rain began to fall.

1st Lt. Leonard Farron, fighter pilot and Puyallup warrior, was home again.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, @crsailor

The missing

Additional information on the U.S. Defense Department’s mission to account for Americans who went missing while serving in the military is available the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s website at dpaa.mil or by calling 703-699-1420.

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