Legion post’s namesake comes home after 80 years

The night before his mission to bomb oil refineries around Ploiesti, Romania, U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley was told to pack his B-4 bag and write a letter home. The mission he was preparing for later became known as “Black Sunday” as it was one of the greatest losses for the USAAF in World War II. Weekley, 21, wrote his final letter home that read, in part, “Mother, when you see the newspapers and you read about the Ploesti raid, just know that I’m right there with them.”

On Aug. 1, 1943, Weekley was a navigator in the nose of a B-24 Liberator nicknamed “Lady Jane” that set out on one of the largest air raids named Operation Tidal Wave. His plane was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft. And his remains went unaccounted for.

Until now.

After nearly 80 years, 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley’s remains were identified and brought home.

Four generations of Weekley’s family welcomed him home to Florida, including his 94-year-old sister Marva Weekley-Turner, as well as his brothers and sisters in arms, The American Legion.

A celebration of life was held for Weekley on Saturday, May 13, at his Legion post namesake – the Dana-Howard-Weekley American Legion Post 130 in LaBelle, Fla.

“To have one of our namesakes actually accounted for is pretty humbling. I can’t imagine my child not coming home. I can’t imagine that feeling of not knowing," said Post 130 Commander Myra Johnson, who has a 21-year-old daughter. "I was excited that there’s finally some closure for everybody. Not just the family but for even our post. Everybody in the post was just so excited to be able to say, he’s home. So we wanted to make sure that we honored the family, we honored his sacrifice.”

Weekley-Turner and her family were escorted by Legion Riders from American Legion Post 69 in Avon Park, Fla., where she and her family live, to Post 130 in LaBelle.

Seeing the Legion Riders and other Post 69 members lined up outside Post 69 brought tears to Weekley-Turner. Her daughter and Weekley’s niece, Cathy Albritton, said, “We thought we were the only ones that cared. We had no idea it was any bigger than us until we met (Post 69 Commander) Larry Roberts. We learned so quickly that The American Legion is our extended family. That they are there for us; for anything we need. They are the most wonderful, caring people. They have taught me this is how we treat our own. He’s our brother, and we do not leave him behind … 80 years later, he is not left behind.”

Weekley-Turner had the option to have her brother buried at Arlington National Cemetery or sent home. After seeing the outpour of support from The American Legion and community members, “I’m happy that I said, ‘Send him home.’”

The Legion Riders all had a patch on their vests that was a photo of Weekley with the inscription, “Welcome Home Weekley! 80 Years Never Forgotten.” Challenge coins also were made and handed to his family.

Roberts said that the family didn’t know the magnitude of services The American Legion can provide, “and what we wanted to provide. We will never leave a fallen comrade. This gentleman has been missing for 80 years; we’re not going to leave him behind. That’s one of my brothers. And finally, one of my brothers is home.”

At 10 a.m. last Saturday, kickstands went up and the police-led hour-long escort was underway. Along the route, people stood outside businesses to wave American flags and show their respect, and yellow ribbons were tied to trees and a banner that read “Welcome Home 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley” hung between firetruck ladders outside Post 25.

“We could not believe there would be so many people. It makes us see how many people are patriotic and how many people are thankful for our freedom,” Weekley-Turner said. “It makes us realize that we all are patriotic.”

Turner, Albritton, Wesley (Turner’s son), two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren arrived to Post 130 before noon along with hundreds of Legion Riders. The post was packed with Legion Family and community members there to meet the family, enjoy a free lunch, see photos and newspaper clippings of Weekley and to celebrate “Pharis as the son, brother, the person who was willing to give his life for his country,” Johnson said.

Before the war

In high school, Weekley wanted to join the football team but his mother, Naomi Weekley, was worried he would get hurt. So unbeknownst to his mother, Weekley joined the boxing team. She soon found out when he came home with a busted lip. He too was an Eagle Scout and a gifted singer, often singing for the second wife of Thomas Edison at her tea parties.

Following the war, an Army chaplain wrote the family saying that Weekley would be greatly missed because he always led the singing during services. His favorite song was “My Task” which will be sung at his funeral service May 20 by his great niece, Brittany.

After graduating from Fort Myers High School in 1940, Weekley attended college at the University of Florida. When war broke out, he left college to serve.

“He said, ‘We just got to get this war won. We’ve got to get it behind us. And the only way is for us to volunteer, join, fight and get this war over with,’” Turner said about her brother. Before his deployment overseas, she received a final gift from him. She was just 14 years old. But it is one that she has and still wears to this day – a gold bracelet and necklace. “I’ve always treasured it because it was a gift from him,” she said.

Missing in action

The news of Weekley missing in action came via a Western Telegram that his father had to retrieve from the local drugstore in downtown LaBelle. Then the second telegram came declaring him killed but still unaccounted for. But with a mother’s love unmatched, Naomi held on to hope that her son would return home.

The Weekleys owned a furniture store downtown where the Greyhound bus station was. “My mother, whenever the Greyhound bus would come in, she told me, ‘I could not help but go to the front door and watch people get off of the bus and just maybe this is not true, maybe Pharis will get off of that bus,’” Turner shared. “It was hard. It was hard.”

Weekley had turned 21 a few weeks before his final mission. His remains were buried as unknown in the Hero Section of the Civilian and Military Cemetery of Bolovan, Ploiesti, then moved to the Ardennes American Cemetery and Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium where they remained until 2017.

Even though she was never able to see her son come home, Naomi kept a scrapbook of his entire life that has been passed down. “My grandmother kept everything. Every letter he sent (while in war), every letter she sent. Everything in the newspaper; everything about Pharis Weekley was in this scrapbook,” Albritton said. “That’s how the story of him went through the generations. We have two grandsons with us today (at the Post 130 celebration of life). So we will continue to talk about the last few days with them. As long as we keep talking about it, they’re going to remember it. And this will be a generational story.”

The homecoming

Turner and her younger brother, Dallas, gave their DNA to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in 2014. “They called me and said, ‘We don’t leave anybody behind’ … but I didn’t expect this to happen,” Turner said. “It’s just overwhelming that we’re able to bring him back.”

The DPAA began exhuming remains from the Operation Tidal Wave mission in 2017. And on July 12, 2022, the remains of U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. Pharis E. Weekley were identified.

The DPAA called Albritton to tell her the news and that they felt she should share it with her mother. She went to her mother’s house, told her to sit down, and shared that her brother had been found. “As soon as I told her, a flood of emotions came over her. She couldn’t believe it. She cried and cried. If it wasn’t for the efforts of the DPAA, none of this would be happening.”

Weekley’s remains were flown into Orlando airport on Friday, May 12. Eight American Legion Riders from Post 69 and 130 were there with the family to welcome the flag-draped casket and to then meet up with a larger contingent of Riders to escort Weekley and his family through Avon Park to the funeral home.

It was closure for Marva. “Particularly, seeing the casket come off the plane,” she said through tears. “I can’t even express … there’s no way I can express …. and to thank our government for continuing to look for all the boys.”

Weekley will be buried in Avon Park on May 20 beside his mother and father.

American Legion Riders and Legion Family members will again be at the funeral service to show their support.

“The American Legion has provided the most amazing support and love and comfort,” Albritton said. “I knew they did a lot for our community and for different organizations in our community, always been aware because of the great work they do. But this side … this side.”

A form of that comfort came in the way of 90-year-old Post 69 Chaplain Ann Farrell, who put her arm around Turner as prayer was said over her brother’s casket and before the Legion Riders departed Post 69 Saturday morning.

“It’s really just such an honor for me at my age, I’ve never had anything like this happen before. It’s a one in a lifetime experience,” said Farrell, a Korean War era veteran. “I think this is something that they will treasure forever.”

Roberts added, “It’s what we do. That’s what The American Legion does.”