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Relatives to remember World War II hero they never knew

Chicago arerelatives Army Air Force Lt. Emil Wasilewski will be there Tuesday when he's buried ArlingtNational Cemetery Virginia.

Chicago area relatives of Army Air Force Lt. Emil Wasilewski will be there Tuesday when he's buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:17AM

A dozen or so people will gather in Virginia on Tuesday — arriving from the Chicago area and the West Coast — to stand graveside and remember Emil T. Wasilewski, a family member none of them ever met.

John Sikes, Wasilewski’s great-nephew from Joliet, will be among them, and he isn’t sure quite how he’ll feel saying goodbye at Arlington National Cemetery to a U.S. airman finally identified last year after being shot down over Germany during World War II.

“Sixty-eight years later, it’s an amazing thing,” said Sikes, 42. “It’s something to be proud about. I get to explain to my children that history matters.”

That heritage was largely forgotten — memories of a young Chicago airman lost with a generation that had passed away. Sikes and his family knew that Wasilewski, who grew up on the South Side, was a bombardier whose B-17G “Flying Fortress” aircraft had been shot down Sept. 13, 1944 while on a bombing run over Germany. The bomber had dropped its load and was heading back to base in France when it was hit, Sikes said.

The family learned that only one of the nine crew members, but not Wasilewski, had survived. Without a body to bury, Wasilewski’s grieving family buried an empty casket at St. Casimir Cemetery on the Far South Side.

But then about a year ago, the U.S. Department of Defense reached out to some of Wasilewski’s surviving relatives, saying they’d possibly found Wasilewski’s remains in a cemetery in Neustaedt, Germany. The military’s POW/Missing Personnel Office needed a DNA sample to confirm the connection.

Don Wade of Downers Grove, Wasilewski’s nephew, initially thought the whole thing was a hoax, but he eventually agreed to submit his DNA — a sample taken from the inside of his mouth — after doing a little research online.

When the DNA came back as a match last fall, Wade said he could hardly believe what he was hearing.

“I was pretty amazed and surprised,” said Wade, 60. “It was like a real-life CSI.”

And so Tuesday, Wasilewski’s family will gather in Virginia to bury his remains during a ceremony with full military honors. Sikes, who inherited his great uncle’s medals and a folded American flag from Wasilewski’s first funeral, said he didn’t feel sorrow during a private ceremony for his great-uncle Monday.

“It actually felt awkward because I was not sad,” he said. “This was a person I didn’t know.”

But on Tuesday, with his two school-age children beside him, Sikes expects them to get a history lesson they won’t find in any textbook.

“Look what your family did,” he expects to be able to tell his kids. “History isn’t something that happens to someone else. This your heritage. ... That’s why we’re here.”

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