Gowanda Men Still Missing From World War II

Rolland J. Luce

This Memorial Day, honor two 1940 Gowanda Central School graduates who were the village’s first and last servicemen to die in World War II. One perished 24 days after Pearl Harbor. The other died six hours after the bombing of Hiroshima. Their remains have yet to be found.

Private Carroll D. Heath enlisted in the Army in February 1941. He completed training with the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, NJ and went to the Philippine Islands in August. On Dec. 8, Japan attacked the Philippines. After that day, Army records listed Heath in “beleaguered status–” surrounded by a hostile force preventing escape. Heath became Gowanda’s forgotten warrior.

From a broken home, Heath moved between family members before living with his aunt in Gowanda for high school. Most class members had been together since elementary school. Heath did not have long-term relationships with classmates.

In November 1945, the Army informed Heath’s aunt that her nephew died on Dec. 31, 1941. Heath became Gowanda’s first soldier to die in World War II. On Jan. 1, 1946, General Douglas MacArthur sent his aunt a letter telling her that Heath died as a prisoner of war.

By 1951 the Army listed Heath’s remains as non-recoverable due in part to tropical conditions ruining means of identification along with destruction of graves by Japanese soldiers.

Pvt. Carroll D. Heath

Gowanda’s World War II Honor Roll did not include Heath’s name for 69 years. Yet, his name appeared on a cenotaph in Manilla. In 2015, a classmate’s interest in Heath’s status led to a series of Associated Press stories. The Army, after a June 2015 analysis, claimed Heath did not die as a POW. However, in a July turnabout, the Army posthumously awarded Heath nine medals including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and POW Medals. With recognition as a POW, Heath’s name was added to the data base at the National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, GA. On Sept. 2, 2015, the 70th anniversary of VJ Day, Carroll Heath’s name and picture were added to Gowanda’s World War II Honor Roll.

Heath’s classmate, Rolland J. Luce enlisted in the Army Air Force in February 1943. After a series of stateside training assignments, Luce went to China as a B-24 bomber pilot in February, 1945.

On Aug. 6, 1945 Luce was a flight officer on a B-24 delivering gasoline from India to China. That B-24, nicknamed Poco Moco, lost contact over Burma. No crew members or aircraft parts were ever found. The unit history of the 308th Bombardment Wing had no reference to that flight, according to the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

A May 18 letter from Luce’s girlfriend may have foretold his fate. The young lady admonished him for writing “if I’m alive” in a previous letter Luce sent her. Luce and his crew flew over an area known as the “hump.” Their B-24 is one of nearly 500 aircraft still missing in that area.

A Sept. 25, 1947 military summary outlined efforts made to find the missing B-24. Fifteen military aircraft spent 79 hours searching for the bomber. There was no ground search. According to the report, the 1352nd Base Unit, an Army Air Force search and rescue organization, reached the following conclusions based as there were no parachutes or survivors reported seen by Burmese natives in the area: “…aircraft either exploded in the area scattering parts for miles or crashed in the jungle and is not visible from the air.”

Families of Heath and Luce provided DNA samples to the Defense POW/MIA Agency (DPAA) in the event that remains are found. As of April 2024, there has been no new information about the fate of the missing classmates. Headstones in Cattaraugus County await the return of Heath and Luce.

Gowanda Native Alan E. Mesches retired from a sales and marketing career and became a writer. Now living in Frisco, Texas, He is the author of “The Flying Grunt” and “Major General James A. Ulio; How the Adjutant General Enabled Allied Victory” both published by Casemate Publishers.


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