Staff Sargent Willard R. Best, 24, formerly of Staunton, was killed in action during WW II on August 24, 1944. After 75 years, his remains were positively identified on September 3, 2019. Following delays due to Covid-19, his remains have been returned to his hometown of Staunton for burial. Now 77 years later on Friday, September 24, Willard will be honored with a military funeral starting with a processional at 10:30 A.M. from Williamson Funeral Home thru downtown Staunton to Memorial Park Cemetery. A full military funeral will start at the cemetery at 11:00 A.M. The public is invited to honor this fallen war hero by participating in the processional and ceremony.
Willard was born April 10, 1920. He was the son of the late Otto and Lena Best of Staunton and brother to Harold (Elaine) Best, Leland "Elmer" Best, and Joyce (Ike) Bangert who are all deceased. He was married to the late Alma L. (Eyer) Best Piekutowski. He is survived by son Willard “Dick” Best of Decatur; three grandchildren, Michael (Amanda) Best of Colorado, Laura Conley of Shelbyville, and Richard (Angie) Best of West Virginia; seven great-grandchildren; and three great-great-grandchildren. Also surviving are nieces Beverly Bangert of Springfield, Connie (Philip) Cavoretto of Staunton, Lynn Bangert of Springfield, Debbie (Mike) Pernicka of Staunton, Lois (Greg) Savant of Gillespie, Karen Johnson, and nephew Lee (Sue) Best of Arlington Heights.
Following is a synopsis of Willard’s death in 1944 and journey over the past seventy-seven years paraphrased from the Air Force Times published in October 2019.
The remains of a B-17 Flying Fortress top turret gunner, shot down over Germany in World War II, have been identified. In August 1944, Best was a top turret gunner aboard a B-17G assigned to the 407th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy), 40th Combat Bombardment Wing, 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force. On Aug. 24, the nine-man crew of the Flying Fortress was conducting a bombing raid over Merseburg, Germany, when it was struck by anti-aircraft fire, exploded, and crashed, according to the DPAA
(Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency). Four crewmembers survived and were captured by German forces. The other five, including Best, were killed. Best’s remains were reported to have been buried in the Leipzig-Lindenthal Cemetery. After the war, the American Graves Registration Command recovered three sets of remains from the Lindenthal Cemetery. The remains of these three service members were declared unidentifiable and buried as unknown American service members in American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in Europe until 2017. After volunteers notified DPAA of the unknown burials associated with the B-17 crash, a DPAA historian determined that the three sets of remains could likely be associated with crewmembers from Best’s Flying Fortress. April 2019, the Department of Defense and ABMC disinterred three sets of remains and sent them to the DPAA laboratory for identification. Scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used anthropological analysis mitochondrial DNA analysis to identify Best. Willard’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, an AMBC (American Battle Monuments Commission) site in Belgium, along with the others missing from WWII. Although interred as an unknown, Best’s grave was meticulously cared for by ABMC for 70 years. A rosette will now be placed next to his name to indicate he has been identified.
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