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DNA links old bone fragment to that of downed Marine pilot

Leland Yager, center of the photo, with his hand outreached, poses in front of the Phillips 66 station that he co-owned for a period between the end of World War II and the Korean Conflict. The station (still standing today) is located on the southeast corner of Ross and Main streets in Palmyra, Mo. Photo contributed by Leland’s granddaughter, Gretchen Merriss.


PALMYRA - World War II and Korean war-era pilot, Capt. Leland Yager, returned to his hometown from active duty on Sunday, Aug. 5, 1951, arriving at Palmyra’s Burlington Railroad Depot. Circumstances surrounding his homecoming weren’t as he or his family members would have ever wished for, however.

His remains were contained within a flag-draped coffin. On hand upon his arrival was an honor guard from Boots-Dickson Post 174 of the American Legion, which escorted his casket to the Lewis Bros. Funeral Home. At the time of his death, Capt. Yager was the legion post’s second vice commander.

Looking backward just two months, to June 1951, it’s easy to picture a grinning Leland Yager, living back in Palmyra after serving as a combat veteran, Marine Corps World War II pilot. He cheerfully pumped gasoline and checked oil levels for customers at the Phillips 66 station, which he owned, in part, with Lynn Hutcherson. The station was located on the southeast corner of South Main and Ross streets.

At the same time, on the international scene, tensions in Korea intensified as the decade of the 1940s ended, and Capt. Yager was called back into active duty service on July 6, 1951. Stationed at the El Toro Marine Air Station, a SNJ advanced training plane was reported missing at 1:25 p.m. July 31, 1951. The plane, with two aboard, had crashed in the rugged hills, six miles southwest of Elsiner, Calif.

That could have been the end of the story, save for a recent development in DNA testing.

Finding a fragment

The second chapter of this story began in about 2002, when a young mother in Arizona discovered an unusual artifact in her son’s rock collection. She turned it over to the Yavapai County, Ariz., sheriff’s department, where it was identified as part of a human jaw bone.

The officers did preliminary DNA testing on the bone, but the missing persons database it was compared to at the time did not present a match. So the file was shelved.

Mike Dannison, lieutenant for the Criminal Investigations Bureau, Yavapai County, Ariz., Sheriff’s office, said this department was contacted by a representative from Ramapo College, New Jersey, in 2023. The college has an Investigative Genetic Genealogy Center, and a representative asked if the Sheriff’s Department had any cases that a student group could work on.

The department turned over the jaw bone, along with information on two other cases.

DNA research

Cairenn Binder, assistant director of Ramapo College, explained what happened next. They had DNA extracted from the jaw bone, and developed a profile. That profile was uploaded to two DNA data bases, GED Match and Family Tree DNA.

“The output from those data bases gave us a list of genetic matches to the person we’re tying to identify. There were five to seven general matches.

“It doesn’t have to be a direct family member, it could be third cousins and more distant. It gives us the probability of potential relations. We do the work to figure out what the relationship is.

“The students perform genealogy on all genetic matches to see who the most likely candidate is.

“After that, we come up with an hypothesis, which has to be confirmed.” The hypothesis was that the jaw bone could only belong to Capt. Yager.

The Investigative Genetic Genealogy Bootcamp is a certificate program, designed to allow students to expand and practice their skills while working on real cases. Students learn to adapt their skills by addressing roadblocks that inevitably appear in any case, according to the school’s website.

In this case, the DNA was linked to a granddaughter of Capt. Yager, Gretchen Merriss of St. Louis, who had her profile on two different data bases. She is the daughter of Richard Leland Yager, only son and oldest child of Leland Yager.

For conformation, researchers reached out to Capt. Yager’s only surviving child, Teresa Yager Lewis, who was 4 when her father died.

Testing proved, 100 percent, that the jaw bone belonged to Capt. Yager.

Raised in Palmyra

After his death in 1951, Yager’s three children, Richard L. Yager, Teresa E. Yager, and Denise Yager,  ages 6, 4 and 7 months at the time of his death, were ultimately raised in Palmyra by their paternal grandparents, Everette and Vera Stout Yager. At the time they lived in a house on Main Street, a half a block from the Phillips 66 station.

"They were 56 years old when they got three little kids to take care of, we all came to live with them.” Teresa said. “They were wonderful, salt of the earth people. We were lucky lucky to have them.”

Her grandfather was a welder by trade, repairing automobile radiators. He died in 1982.

“My grandmother had the same personality (as my father), she was very quiet, every body loved her. She had that special knack, my dad had it too, of making you feel special. She did that with everyone. They put a light on you when they were talking to you.” Vera Yager died in 1977.

Crash documents

Gretchen Merriss of St. Louis, whose DNA was initially matched to that of her grandfather, served active duty Air Force for eight years, and has read documents surrounding Capt. Yager’s fatal plane crash.

“In his military record, there are several statements from outlying farmers from around the crash site. They saw the plane, but didn’t hear the crash. No explanation as to why. It was a training accident he was killed in. It was aerobatic training; one of his instructors was supposed to be copilot,” but at the last minute there was a substitution. “They don’t know a whole lot about what happened.”

Gretchen’s father was 6 when his father passed. “He was old enough to understand,” she said.


Teresa Yager Lewis, now living in Palmyra, was 4 when her father died, and carries with her a few vivid memories.

“He got me a tricycle. I was tiny, and he had to put blocks on the pedals, so I could reach them. I would pedal up to the gas station (from their home nearby) and he pretended like he was washing my windshield.

“And every time we went to the grocery store, I got a new Golden Book,” Teresa said, “Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella.” After she read them, she stacked them on the window seat in her room. When she accumulated a sizable stack, her father took her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Hannibal, “and I would hand them out to all the kids. It was really sweet that he would have me hand them out.

“He was a great influence on me, even though he died,” she said. Later, “I didn’t go anywhere as a child that people didn’t want to tell me about what a beautiful smile he had and what a great person he was. He was involved in almost everything in Palmyra, all the organizations.” He emceed the talent and other contests at the fair, and was involved in the business aspects of the town. “He had a great personality.”


A tribute to Leland Yager was published in the Aug. 15, 1951, edition of the Palmyra Spectator. Teresa Yager Lewis identifies the author as Katherine Moore, who was affectionately known in Palmyra as Aunt Kit. Miss Moore wrote in part:

“Our last memory picture of Leland was on the happy occasion of the opening of the Hutcherson station, which with his face wreathed in smiles, he served as one of the reception committee, giving out unbounded sweet hospitality and good cheer to both friends and strangers.

“His high rank in the service of his country never caused him to lose the common touch.

For such a one to leave the earth means a loss to the country and to the community. His soul has taken flight in the great white ship for the beyond, but he will live on in memories’ shrine and freely move about cheering and urging us on to a better way of life.”

Today, Leland Yager is survived by Rick Yager’s children, Gretchen, Eric, Heather, Jennifer, Luke and Missy; and by Teresa Lewis’s daughter, Hannah, who was raised in Virginia, and now lives in Palmyra with her family.


by Teresa Yager Lewis

One knows about the medals,

the honor and the glory

and all that...

And, because I was only 4 years old,

they told me he was with the angels

--still not so hard to believe.

But this not about that...

This is about the loss

and the memory

of him picking me up, and looking into his 

eyes for the last time

--the same way he was looking into mine.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired in 2014 as editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post.

Leland Yager poses in the cockpit of an airplane during his time of service to his country. He was killed during a training flight on July 31, 1951. Photo contributed by Leland’s granddaughter, Gretchen Merriss.

Leland Yager. Photo contributed by Teresa Yager Lewis.

Richard Wayne Yager, brother of Leland Yager.  He served in the South Pacific during World War II. Photo contributed by Teresa Yager Lewis.

Jean Yager, sister of Leland Yager. For a time, Jean worked as a waitress at the diner, located along with the Phillip’s 66 station at Ross and Main Street in Palmyra. That’s where she met her husband, Nate Hagan, a highway patrolman. Photo contributed by Teresa Yager Lewis.

Vera Stout Yager, mother of Leland Yager. Photo contributed by Teresa Yager Lewis.


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