- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

LANDER, Wyo. (AP) - Betty McAleenan held her high school class ring last week for the first time in 71 years. It was returned to her in a small ceremony held at the American Legion Hall in Lander.

Betty, “94 and a half” years old, last saw the ring when she gave it to her first husband, Army Staff Sgt. Robert “Bob” Greibel, before he deployed to the South Pacific in 1943.

After 39 successful missions, Greibel - a ball turret gunner on a B-17 aircraft nicknamed the Naughty but Nice - perished with eight of his fellow crewmembers when the aircraft was shot down. One airman parachuted from the craft and survived.

Betty’s ring also survived, but it took more than seven decades to get back to her.

Betty Hoopengarner graduated from Fremont County Vocational High School in Lander in 1936.

Raised on the Big Wind River near Diversion Dam, Betty and neighboring students headed to Lander every Sunday evening to board during the week at town homes so they could attend school.

“We were country through and through,” she said.

She met Greibel several years after graduation at the Morton Grange Hall, a social gathering place for farmers.

“We didn’t have any money. We were farmers together,” Betty said. “We laughed about it: I milked cows and Bob grew potatoes. How could we be anything but healthy?”

The pair married in August 1942. Looking for life beyond the farm, Bob enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Parting was difficult when Bob left, Betty said, “but during World War II everybody sacrificed.”

Bob took Betty’s class ring with him as he was sent from basic training in Arizona to the South Pacific.

“He gave me a wedding ring, so I gave him my class ring,” Betty said.

She believes he wore the ring on his dog tags, noting it was too small to wear on his hand. Having the ring was a way they could be together, Bob told Betty.

“I wanted to go with him in the worst way,” she said.

“I wanted to help out with the war, to get out of teaching.”

Betty had been teaching for four years, doing everything from instructing to driving the school bus. She soon enlisted as well, serving in Accra, West Africa.

She called war “hell,” and said she thinks men like to fight.

“The bad part,” she said, “is they don’t live through it.”

On June 26, 1943, the 43rd Bombardment Group, 65th squadron - the Naughty but Nice - departed Dobodura, New Guinea on a bombing mission over Rabaul, New Britain Island, according to Department of Defense documents. There were 10 men aboard.

Damaged by anti-aircraft fire, the plane was compromised.

“The aircraft had difficulty maintaining altitude when shot down by Japanese Fighter aircraft,” the official document stated.

It crashed into a mountainside.

Second Lt. Jose L. Holguin parachuted to safety but was captured and detained as a prisoner of war until 1945.

Betty remarried after Bob’s death, and she and new husband Bill McAleenan started a family.

Meanwhile, in April 1949, indigenous people led U.S. military members to a B-17 crash site. Recovered human remains were taken to Hawaii where they were interred as ‘unknown.’

In 1982 and 1983, Holguin, the second lieutenant who parachuted from the Naughty but Nice, returned to New Guinea and located the crash site.

About one year later, the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii exhumed the unknown remains and through DNA testing, identified them as the crewmembers of the Naughty but Nice.

Greibel’s remains were returned home to Fremont County and buried in Riverton in 1985.

In the summer of 2001, the United States sent a team to excavate the crash site. Additional remains were discovered and then interred in 2011.

“Relevant non-biological material evidence (was also) found amid the debris field,” according to documents.

Among the non-biological material was a high-school ring that had suffered from wear, making the name of the high school illegible.

Visible, however, was the year 1936 on the ring front and, engraved inside, the initials BH.

When Betty received the inch-thick report of excavation findings prepared by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, her daughter Mary McAleenan sat with her and read parts of it aloud.

“I just almost fell off my chair,” Betty said of hearing the ring’s description. “I said, for God’s sake, Mary, that’s my class ring!”

Mary contacted officials last fall about her mother’s ring. In return, Betty received a letter from the Department of the Army Repatriations Branch, noting “in some multiple fatality cases, additional remains are found many years after the original recovery date.”

Last week the ring was returned to Betty with daughter Mary and several American Legion members as witnesses.

Wyoming Army National Guard Lt. Col. Robert Fisk presented the ring on Jan. 10 at the Legion Post Hall.

“It’s an honor giving this to you,” Fisk said as he put the velvet ring box in Betty’s hand.

“He took it with him,” Betty said as she quietly wept. “He said that was the only way we could be together.”

Fisk called it amazing the ring was found “after all these years,” noting official references to the “heavily-forested” crash site was actually a thick jungle.

“It’s a whole circle,” Betty said. “The ring is the final piece that made the trek.”

“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” Mary McAleenan said. “I couldn’t believe the ring made its way around the world . through 39 missions, and ended up on a ridge in New Guinea.”

She called herself a “sucker for romance,” but also called her mother’s story a tragedy.

Fisk, who served as casualty assistance officer when Greibel’s additional remains were reinterred in 2011, said ceremonies like this one help provide closure.

“It helps the family know how much he loved them,” Fisk said.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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