Remains of WWII soldier from SWFL returning to relatives after 80 years

Reporter: Justin Kase Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

The remains of a man who fought in World War II, unidentified for 80 years, are finally being flown back to his living relatives in Florida.

For 80 years, 93-year-old Marva Turner has lived with uncertainty like it was a roommate. She was only 14 years old when her big brother, Pharis Weekley, was killed in the line of duty in WWII.

“I just always felt safe when I was with him,” Turner said.

Weekley, born in Bradley Junction and raised in LaBelle, majored in pharmaceuticals at the University of Florida after graduating from Fort Myers High School. At just 21, he had already made a name for himself as a singer, known for his signature baritone voice. One of his biggest fans was Mina Miller Edison, Thomas Edison’s second wife.

He left all of that behind to fight for his country. He attained the rank of second lieutenant in the war and was only 21 years old when his plane was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire during Operation Tidal Wave, the largest bombing mission against the oil fields and refineries at Ploiesti, north of Bucharest, Romania.

Turner reminisced about the day Weekley took off from Page Field.

“And watching my mamma and daddy both cry… because we just didn’t know if we’d ever see him again,” Turner said.

She also remembered the gift he had left for her.

“Since he wouldn’t be there for my birthday, he brought me this bracelet… and matching necklace. And I’ve kept it all through these years,” Turner said.

After Weekely’s plane crashed, his remains were buried with other unknowns in a Romanian military cemetery, where they went unidentified for 80 years. Marva Turner and her family were going to be stuck with uncertainty for what seemed like the rest of their lives.

In 2017, however, 74 years after Weekley died, a breakthrough came. Following the war, the American Graves Registration Command, the organization that searches for and recovers fallen American personnel, gathered all American remains from that Romanian cemetery for identification. The AGRC was unable to identify more than 80 unknowns, and those remains were permanently kept at two other cemeteries in Belgium.

Marva gave a DNA sample to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which believed one set of human remains could be those of Pharis Weekley. After years of anthropological and dental analysis at the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, Turner’s daughter Kathy got a call in July: It was Pharis.

Eighty years after he flew out of the U.S., Weekley’s remains are now flying back to Florid. A water salute will happen on the tarmac and a full military ceremony will take place at the airport, where a small procession will begin. A much larger group will join in Lake Wales at Longleaf Industrial Park and continue on to Avon Park, where Pharis Weekley will be buried on May 20.

Weekley’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Impruneta, Italy, along with others still missing from WWII. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Marva Turner, who turns 94 on Monday, will be there at the airport to welcome her brother home and to take in what is certainly one of the best days of her life.

There was a huge turnout Friday night, with first responders from the region leading the procession. People lined the streets, many of them waving American flags as part of a huge welcome home for Weekley.

“To see all of the people, the families lining the streets, to be saluted by law enforcement with real tears in their eyes, I did not expect that. This is a lot bigger than I ever imagined it would be,” Lance Weekley, Pharis’s nephew, said.

Lance is joining four generations of family members to honor Pharis.

“Awesome. Unbelievable. Just could not be real. It’s just surreal,” Marva said.

“It was very touching to realize that it was his bones after 80 years… that he was coming home. And he’ll be buried right here in Avon Park with his mother, his daddy, with me, with my husband, with Cathy, with a lot of our relatives,” Marva said. “Not so fast there! No rush.”

“He’s home. He’s home. He’s back where he needs to be,” Cathy Albritton, Pharis’s niece, said.

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