Robert McIntosh came home late afternoon on a hot Tuesday, came down Jefferson Street in Tipton, past the towering Tipton County Courthouse with its majestic clock tower. He’d been gone a very long time, but he would have remembered that clock tower and a lot of the buildings that they passed coming into town, McIntosh and the dozens of police and military and Patriot Guard motorcyclists who accompanied him.
It was 74 years ago, almost to the day – August 4, 1942 – that McIntosh, 1st Lt. Robert Leeson McIntosh, 27th Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group, US Army Air Corps, last saw his Tipton home, said farewell to Jesse and Vivien, his father and mother, and his three sisters, Rosanelle, Patricia and Jeannine.
He had graduated from Tipton High School in 1940, gone down to Bloomington and enrolled at Indiana University. Things were looking up. He was bright, good looking, the country was pulling itself out of the Great Depression and the prospects for the kid from Tipton were good. Then everything changed that fall of his sophomore year, on the December Sunday when the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor and the world exploded.
McIntosh did what millions – literally millions – of other young Americans did: He put his life on hold and was inducted into the military. For him, especially, it was the most natural thing in the world; his father was later a major general, U.S. Army.
He did what everybody else did: basic training, went for flying lessons, learned in a hurry what he needed to know about combat flying, was put in that workhorse fighter plane, the P-38, and was shipped off to Europe, to Foggia in southern Italy. His mission: Do like so many other fliers were doing: Take the war to the enemy, drive the Germans and the Italians to the north and clear the way for troops coming ashore at places like Anzio. He did his job well. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in March of ’44 and, later, the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters.
Then, on May 12 of ’44, at the controls of his P-38 Lightning, McIntosh was reported missing while returning with his squadron from a mission to strafe the airfield at Piacenza.
In bad weather, the flight leader missed the intended target and began flying south. Following a brief air battle over Bologna, visibility worsened and pilots were ordered to climb above the overcast. McIntosh’s aircraft was seen diving through the clouds and was never seen again. No wreckage was found by search parties in the area where he was reported missing. He was listed as missing in action, but was promoted to first lieutenant on June 7. A year and a half later – November 7, 1945 – he was declared dead by the War Department.
No plane, no wreckage, no remains, nothing. Gone. Vanished like so many other young men in that apocalypse that claimed 60 million souls around the world.
"You just had to learn to accept it because you knew nothing," said his sister Jeannine Baker, who now lives in Carmel. "And you had to live with that."
But there are those who will not rest until all are home. One such group is called "Archeologi dell’Aria," Archaeologists of the Air, a group of Italian volunteers who search out long-lost submerged and buried aircraft from those years, carefully excavate and preserve the remains of the aircraft and its crew.
In August 2015, a recovery team excavated a crash site in Santa Cristina, Italy, that was determined to be McIntosh’s. Subsequent positive identification of McIntosh’s remains was made by scientists in the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.
Robert McIntosh reclaimed his name and rightful position.
And on Tuesday he came home to Tipton, a man who would now be 92 years old. He was transported from Indianapolis International Airport in a flag-draped coffin with full military escort to the Young-Nichols Funeral Home. Flags lined the street for a block in either direction. Military stood at attention. Family huddled near the door as the casket was carried by an honor guard into the funeral home.
And to welcome the fallen hero, if belatedly, the funeral was to be held in the gymnasium at Tipton High School on Saturday afternoon to accommodate those hundreds still unborn when McIntosh gave his all.
"We felt really and truly that he was with us in spirit," his sister said. Confirmation of death that would normally bring tears now brings a sort of joy. "You have faith in the Lord, and that helped a lot," she said. "You see all the evidence and everything put before you, and you realize that’s really what happened. And it’s just wonderful to finally get to know that is what happened to him."
But it was on that August Tuesday evening, along West Jefferson Street, that Robert Leeson McIntosh came home to Tipton and his World War II ended.