ST. JOSEPH — Albert P. “Bud” Rybarczyk is home for Christmas.

On a cold and blustery day, with the ground covered with snow, the World War II airman who was lost in a plane crash in 1944 was finally laid to rest Monday next to his parents in Resurrection Cemetery.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” a 1940s-era song that poignantly spoke of the homesickness of those far away from family, was played at the end of the funeral mass held for Rybarczyk at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“Never forget” was the message offered by Rybarczyk’s great-nephew, Jim Gray, during the service.

Among those who didn’t forget were the team members of Project Recover, which located the crash site in the South Pacific where Rybarczyk and other crew members died. Navy officials later retrieved and identified the remains of Rybarczyk and fellow crew member Ora Sharninghouse.

Representatives from Project Recover, including Pete Scannon, founder of the BentProp Project, attended the services. This was the first time the group together had attended the funeral for a veteran they helped find, he said.

At a prayer service held Sunday at Starks & Menchinger Funeral Home, Scannon said their decade-long hunt for Rybarczyk’s plane is about expressing gratitude for the sacrifices of the veterans and their families.

“It’s our way of saying thank you,” Scannon said.

Rybarczyk was honored with a full military funeral, with Navy veterans escorting his coffin. A flag was presented to Mary Ann Rybarczyk, his only surviving sibling. Members of the Sharninghouse family, from Findlay, Ohio, attended the service.

After seeing articles about Rybarczyk, the Sharninghouse family contacted his relatives. Letters that were sent between the mothers of Rybarczyk and Sharninghouse after their deaths were shared.

Rybarczyk’s family received a special tribute from the state of Michigan signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, state Sen. John Proos and Rep. Kim LaSata. Proos, a former student of Mary Ann Rybarczyk, and LaSata, who taught at Lake Michigan Catholic, attended the service, along with Upton aide Mike Ryan and Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey.

Members of the St. Joseph Public Safety Department and the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department took part in the procession, and a large flag flew from the ladder of a St. Joseph fire engine.

Bud Rybarczyk was a 1941 graduate of St. Joseph Catholic High School, and enlisted in the Navy less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America into World War II.

He became part of Air Group 18, stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, and served on a TBM-C1 Avenger, a torpedo bomber.

Air Group 18 called itself the “Carrier Clowns,” and the unit logo was a seal balancing an anti-mine missile on its nose. A zebra (the unit’s radio call signal) stood atop the bomb.

On the morning of Sept. 8, 1944, Rybarczyk’s unit was on a bombing mission against Japanese positions on Babelthuap Island, Palau. The crew released its bomb on an ammunition dump. But the plane was too low, and the explosion tore off the tail from the aircraft, causing it to spin into the water.

The plane and its crew were never located until March 2014. BentProp, along with Eric Terrill with the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, and Mark Moline with the University of Delaware, used autonomous robotic vehicles to locate a probable crash site 100 feet underwater and about 100 feet from shore.

Scannon, who founded BentProp in 1995, said the partnership and the advances in technology have greatly enhanced their ability to locate crash sites.

Before teaming up, searches were limited to scuba divers and how far and how long they could stay submerged, Scannon said. Now, with the underwater robots, the search area has been widely expanded.

His BentProp team had been looking for the exact spot of Rybarczyk’s plane for 10 years before joining with the other institutions, Scannon said. Once they joined forces they found it in one day.

In the two and a half years they have worked together, Project Recover has located 20 crash sites, Scannon said, and they have identified 20 aircraft that contain the remains of those reported missing in action.

It has expanded into a global effort. Searches are to be undertaken in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji and French New Caledonia, Scannon said. They also plan to return to the island near Rybarczyk’s crash site to search for remains of the pilot, John Savage, who is believed to have been captured and executed.

There are an estimated 78,000 veterans of World War II still listed as missing.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak