Military History

Remains of Army Air Forces B-17 gunner identified

The remains of a B-17 Flying Fortress top turret gunner, shot down over Germany in World War II, have been recovered.

Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Willard R. Best, 24, of Staunton, Illinois, was accounted for Sept. 3, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Oct. 24.

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 and crashed, according to the DPAA.. Four crewmembers survived and were captured by German forces. The other five, including Best, were killed.

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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. One set was identified, but the other two could not be. The remains of the three service members were declared unidentifiable and buried as unknown American service members in American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in Europe in 2017.

Willard Best is memorialized in the Tablets of the Missing at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial near Liège, Belgium, (Courtesy of
Willard Best is memorialized in the Tablets of the Missing at Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial near Liège, Belgium, (Courtesy of "Astrid" at

After volunteers notified DPAA of the unknown burials associated with the B-17 crash, a DPAA historian determined that 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.

Best’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, an 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 be placed next to his name to indicate he has been identified.

Best was the son of Otto and Lena Best of Staunton and the brother of Leland Elmer Best, Joyce Best and Harold C. Best, according to contributors to He was married to Alma L. Best of Decatur, Ill., at the time of his death. He will be buried in his hometown in the spring of 2020.

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