By Dale Bliss and Christy Swift
Photography by Lisa Taylor Hall

It’s been 80 years since U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley went Missing in Action during World War II. Now, through DNA analysis and the efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he has finally come home to his family in Avon Park.

In the small town of Bradley Junction on July 22, 1922, Naomi Weekley, wife of Thomas Weekley, gave birth to a baby boy who would grow up to become one of America’s bravest soldiers. Pharis E. Weekley was an extraordinary young man who would sacrifice his life for his country at the young age of 21. Weekley’s family moved to LaBelle and then to Fort Myers where he attended high school. He was a talented singer with a natural baritone voice, and he often performed at churches and special events in the community. He was even invited to sing at the summer home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Mina Edison during her celebrated garden parties.

The family included brothers Dallas and Tommy, and a sister, Marva. Music was a cornerstone for his whole family, and they would often gather around the piano in the evenings to sing. “He also, along with the family, enjoyed reading and memorizing poetry. Back then when there was no television, that is what we did for entertainment,” his sister Marva Turner recalls with a smile.

A Determined Young Man

In high school, Pharis wanted to go out for the football team but, so as not to go against his mother’s wishes, he joined the boxing team instead. Until he came home with a split lip, she was not aware that he had joined the boxing team. Weekley earned his Eagle Scout Badge by participating in a survival weekend. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Florida with plans to become a pharmacist like his Uncle Johnny.

Weekley’s plans for his future changed after speaking with a recruiter from the Army Air Forces. He felt that this was his calling and decided to forego pharmaceutical training and serve his country instead. Weekley’s parents received a letter from the headquarters of the Gulf Coast Army Air Forces Training Center on June 5, 1942, informing them that their son was selected to be trained as a navigator. The letter stated, “In order to win this war, it is vital to have the best-qualified young men in navigating our bombardment airplanes. Upon them will depend, in large measure, the success of our entire war effort.”

Called to Make the Ultimate Sacrifice

Weekley was stationed at the Triple E military base in Benghazi, Libya, when he was called to serve in Operation Tidal Wave—the largest air raid in World War Two. On Sunday, August 1, 1943, during the dark early morning hours, Weekley was led to his airplane, a B-24 Liberator named the Lady Jayne, along with nine other elite aviators from the 329th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 93rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), 9th Air Force. The mission was to destroy the oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, which were crucial to the Axis war effort and produced as much as one third of Germany’s liquid fuel requirements. Ploesti was one of the most heavily fortified targets in Europe, and it was beyond the range of Allied bombers from England. However, it would be accessible by bombers stationed in the Middle East or North Africa—including Weekley’s squadron.

“They were told at their briefing, ‘Go back to your barracks, pack all your belongings in your B-4 bag along with your letter home’,” Marva’s daughter Cathy Albritton recounts, reading from a book on the subject. “I’m sure they didn’t sleep a wink that night.”

Weekley had just turned 21 a few weeks before he was called on that mission. Albritton read a quote from Weekley’s letter home: “Mother, when you read in the paper about what the liberators are doing in the Middle East, I want you to know that I am right in here.” The letter was dated July 30th, 1943. Pharis also asked how Marva and Dallas were getting along with their music. And he wanted his mother to tell his brother Tommy, who was stationed in Europe, that he had earned an Air Medal.

Operation Tidal Wave

Operation Tidal Wave was a daring and dangerous one, and leaders “expected many losses.” It was the first and last time the military would execute a low-level air raid, with some planes flying as low as 50 feet off the ground. Second Lieutenant Weekley’s likely experience was recounted by his nephew, Lance, a pilot: “After traveling approximately one thousand two hundred miles in leaking, fume-infested B-24s with no seats for most of the men before they reached the target, they were forced to fly just a few feet above ground at about 160 miles per hour.” They were so close to the ground they had to keep pulling corn stalks out of the engines. Only a few short hours into the raid, the sky filled with smoke and fire as the Germans fought back with devastating force. The Lady Jayne was hit by enemy fire and crashed.

“One hundred seventy seven planes and 1753 men departed on the mission. Fifty-four planes and at least 532 men did not return,” Cathy Albritton reports from a scrapbook her grandmother Naomi kept of Pharis. Of the men on the Lady Jayne, only one survived, and he was taken prisoner, she added.

At her uncle’s Memorial Service, Cathy quoted an excerpt from “The Ploesti Raid Through the Lens,” a book by Roger A. Freeman. “The Operation Tidal Wave low level bombing raid has probably attracted more interest than any other United States Army Air Forces offensive operation during the Second World War,” she read. “It has been proclaimed the most ambitious, the most daring, the most foolhardy, the most disastrous and the most heroic, to name but a few superlatives.”

Cathy didn’t think anything else would be added to her uncle’s scrapbook since Weekley’s remains, along with many others, were not identified following the war. However, in 2017, The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began exhuming unknown remains believed to be associated with unaccounted-for airmen from Operation Tidal Wave. These remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for examination and identification. Because the family opted in to this initiative and provided their DNA, almost 80 years after his heroic sacrifice, on July 12, 2022, Weekley’s remains were positively identified using DNA analysis. Cathy and her mother Marva would be adding to that scrapbook after all.

Remembering A Hero

U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley was welcomed home on May 12th, 2023 by his surviving family in Avon Park. His remains were flown into Orlando, where he was received with full military honors, including a water salute. He was then accompanied by a contingent of over 200 motorcycle veterans from Lake Wales. His memorial service took place on May 20th, 2023 where he was welcomed home by his sister Marva and nieces and nephews Cathy Albritton, Wesley Turner, and Lance Weekley as well as local ROTC members, church members, and the community. His remains were laid to rest next to his mother’s.

His memorial service at First Baptist Church in Avon Park was also attended by Dr. Megan Ingvoldstad, a forensic anthropologist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the leader of the Ploesti Project, the DPAA’s effort to identify the service members unaccounted-for from Operation Tidal Wave. Weekley received full military honors at Bougainvillea Cemetery in Avon Park, including a gunfire salute and active Color Guard. Meanwhile, a rosette will be placed next to his name on the Tablets of the Missing at the Florence American Cemetery in Impruneta, Italy, indicating that another brave American airman has gone home at last.