Remains of Vanderbilt chemical engineering grad lost in WWII returned to U.S.

WATCH: In Loving Memory of Major Peyton S. Mathis Jr.

The remains of a Vanderbilt University chemical engineer who died in a World War II fighter plane crash were laid to rest last week in Montgomery, Ala.

Major Peyton S. Mathis Jr. played football for Vanderbilt and earned his bachelor’s degree from the School of Engineering in 1940, volunteering as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces the same year.

Major Peyton S. Mathis Jr.

He became the commanding officer of the 44th Fighter Squadron in 1944, and on June 5 of that year, lead 14 pilots to dive-bomb Japanese weapons sites in the Solomon Islands. A brigadier general then postponed the mission due to inclement weather. At about the same time, Mathis, 28, experienced failure of the right engine in his P-38J Lightning twin-engine fighter plane and tried to return to Kukum Field on the northern coast of Guadalcanal.

An account provided by his surviving relatives said he aborted his final turn to land and instead flew south and crashed into a jungle ravine, submerging the plane. A fellow soldier swam down 6-8 feet to free Mathis’ body from the cockpit but was unsuccessful.

A Department of Defense media release said there were two other attempts to recover the body. An Army graves registration company couldn’t locate the plane in 1949. In 2012, locals led a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command search team, initially on the island to investigate another crash site, to the Mathis site. A team excavated the site in 2013 and also collected bones found by villagers before the excavation.

Scientists used circumstantial evidence, dental comparisons and mitochondrial DNA — which matched Mathis’ maternal cousin — to establish the identity of the remains.

“It was a relief when we got the call,” Peyton S. Mathis III, Mathis’ namesake and nephew through a half-brother, told the Montgomery Advertiser. “Of course, the family had little doubt what happened. We knew there was a crash, and we knew he could not be recovered at the time. But still, it brings an ending to the story.”

The nephew, born in 1949, never knew his war hero uncle.

Mathis was already a veteran combat fighter pilot when he died, holding the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eight oak-leaf clusters.

He was buried Jan. 3, 2015, with full military honors at Greenwood Serenity Memorial Gardens in Montgomery. He is survived by his widow, Evelyn.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering