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Chester welcomes home a long-lost son

Motorcycles from the Legion Riders and Patriot Guard Riders await the funeral procession.

CHESTER ­– The city of Chester turned out in force on Sunday to welcome home a long-lost son — 1st Lt. Richard W. Horrigan, a World War II fighter pilot who died while flying missions in the waning days of the war and whose body was lost to investigators for decades.

“My mom was hoping for this all her life,” said Dr. Richard Horrigan, Lt. Horrigan’s son, at a funeral service at Arner Funeral Chapel.

“She hoped he’d be found alive. To finally have this closure — it’s just amazing,” he said.

Lt. Horrigan’s remains were buried with his wife, Dorothy (Conklin) Horrigan, in the family plot at Locust Hill Cemetery following a procession down Carolina Avenue. She died in 2007.

Chester residents lined the main street, decorated with American flags and yellow ribbons, to see Lt. Horrigan to his final resting place despite a threat of rain.

A banner with 1st Lt. Richard Horrigan’s picture flies outside Chester American Legion Post 121.

“To drive down Carolina Avenue and see all the flags and yellow ribbons has been amazing,” said Karen Conklin, a cousin of Dr. Horrigan. “We’re overwhelmed with the wonderful outpouring of support, which has been sustaining. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions.”

Lt. Horrigan’s story became a cause celebre in Chester after it was announced in February that his remains had been positively identified — 77 years after his P-47D Thunderbolt had been shot down behind enemy lines in eastern Germany.

Horrigan, son of Cornelius and Elizabeth Horrigan, was born in Chester in 1921 and graduated from Chester High School in 1938. He was working at the Taylor, Smith & Taylor pottery when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.

He spent about two years training to be a fighter pilot, received his commission in May 1944 and was sent overseas in December as a pilot with the 22nd Fighter Squadron, 36th Fighter Group, 9th Army Air Force.

Horrigan was flying dangerous missions out of Niedermendig Air Base, a recently-captured area in Germany, with orders to strafe enemy German aircraft parked at the Alt Loennewitz Airfield, according the medical examiner’s report of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Dr. Richard and Terry Horrigan pose for pictures during Sunday’s news conference at Arner Funeral Chapel, Chester. (Photos by Stephen Huba)

“These aircraft presented an inviting target, and at approximately 3:30 p.m., 1st Lt. Horrigan joined several other pilots in strafing these planes. … His aircraft crashed during this action, likely due to anti-aircraft fire,” the report said.

Horrigan’s wingman, 1st Lt. John L. Reddy Jr., reported that he was flying abreast of Horrigan as they were making their last strafing run of the day. He glanced out of the right side of his cockpit and saw an explosion on the ground, the report said.

“I did not see Lt. Horrigan pull out of his strafing pass, so, undoubtedly, this explosion was his airplane,” Reddy said.

Horrigan presumably died on impact just about three weeks before the end of the war in Europe. His family in Chester learned about his MIA status on V-E Day, said Bonnie Horrigan Slade, a niece of Horrigan’s.

“He was supposed to be coming home,” she said.

Horrigan was a casualty not only of World War II but also of the Cold War.

Initially, Horrigan’s remains could not be recovered because the airfield was behind enemy lines, but once political realities had hardened, recovery by the American Graves Registration Command became next to impossible.

After the war, the area where Horrigan perished came under the control of the Red Army and eventually became part of the Soviet-controlled East Germany.

“The uniqueness of this case is that he was on the Communist side. We couldn’t get in there to get his remains,” said Katie Rasdorf, a researcher with History Flight Inc.

History Flight Inc., a nonprofit based in Fredericksburg, Va., was tasked by the U.S. government to locate and excavate Horrigan’s remains in the summer of 2019.

Horrigan was declared unrecoverable in 1953, and by that time the U.S. military was in the thick of the Korean War, Rasdorf said.

Rasdorf said the U.S. Defense Department has been prioritizing such cases only in the past 15 years. There remains an estimated 73,000 unrecovered MIA/KIA servicemen from World War II alone, she said.

History Flight lobbied Congress and was able to get funding for such operations in the 2009 Defense Authorization Act, she said. In the year Horrigan’s remains were found, six other losses in Europe were being investigated by History Flight.

Following the recovery in 2019, Horrigan’s remains were transferred to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for analysis. Scientists from the lab used dental and anthropological evidence, and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner was able to make a positive identification using DNA analysis.

Dr. Horrigan, 76, first learned about the recovery efforts in 2018, when he was asked for a DNA sample. A retired anesthesiologist from San Francisco, he believes the DNA evidence was a critical piece of the recovery puzzle.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Horrigan said he hopes his father’s case brings hope to other families of missing veterans.

“I think it would be great if this was broadcast widely, so that other families can maintain hope,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.

Lt. Horrigan’s remains were brought to Chester from Pittsburgh on Friday, accompanied by a motorcade of the Legion Riders, the Patriot Guard Riders, the Chester Police Department and the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department.

Along with Boy Scout Troop 12, they accompanied the procession up Carolina Avenue to Locust Hill Cemetery. Chester American Legion Post 121 and the Chester Lions Club organized decorations and logistics.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sent a representative to Sunday’s funeral. She presented an American flag to Horrigan.

“West Virginians have fought in more wars, shed more blood and lost more lives for the cause of freedom than most any state,” Manchin’s statement said. “We have always done the heavy lifting and never complained.”

John Paulsen, described as the oldest living relative who knew Lt. Horrigan, said he remembers his “Uncle Dick” while growing up in Chester because they were close in age.

“We spent almost every weekend at the Horrigan house. Uncle Dick was put in charge of me,” Paulsen said.

Paulsen said he has distinct memories of walking with Horrigan along Carolina Avenue and reading Sunday newspaper comics with him. One Christmas, Paulsen said he received an electric train set, but he couldn’t play with it because Horrigan and other families were too busy playing with it.

“He was a nice guy, a lot of fun,” he said, noting that the last time he saw Horrigan was at a wedding in Pittsburgh.

Slade said Horrigan was known for his joviality and his Irish wit.

“I was always curious and proud of the uncle I never met,” she said. “I considered him to be like a ‘Top Gun’ aviator.”

“When I heard that his remains were coming home, my tears just flowed and flowed. I was so overjoyed,” she said.

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