A 70-year fight to bring home a hero heats up with lawsuit

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Nininger was one of the nation’s first World War II heroes who volunteered for a furious battle only weeks into the war. But more than seven decades later his remains are still unrecovered, despite a tireless effort by his family to map his final resting place.

Lt. Nininger’s nephew John Patterson, a former state representative, is one of seven plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the government agency assigned to find and identify American military personnel who were buried overseas.

John Patterson thumbs through decades of paperwork.

“I’m exasperated more than anything else,” Patterson told us from his North Kingstown kitchen table, covered in piles of document-stuffed folders and scrapbooks. “I can document where he is with government records. But I wouldn’t keep trying if I didn’t believe we can bring him home.”

Lt. Nininger is referred to as a “one-man army” in an entry on a webpage for the Naval Air Station Ft. Lauderdale Museum, in the city where he grew up.

Only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 23-year old lieutenant arrived in the Phillipines with the Army’s 57th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts.

In January 1942, a fierce attack by the Japanese was pummeling Company K.

Lt. Nininger left his nearby company and volunteered to help hold back the enemy.

“Men fell around him on both sides to sniper, machine gun, and artillery fire,” the museum entry reads. “Yet Nininger carried on, shooting snipers out of trees and tossing grenades into Japanese foxholes as he relentlessly advanced forward.”

Nininger’s family has asked the Department of Defense to exhume his body five times, and been denied five times.

Patterson recalls another nickname for his uncle: the Quiet Hero.

“He was a very mild-mannered guy if you read about him but apparently it was like flipping a switch,” Patterson said. “And he became a warrior.”

According to the posthumous military citation he received, “when his body was found after recapture of the position, one enemy officer and two enemy soldiers lay dead around him.”

He received more than a dozen commendations, including the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded in World War II.

Patterson is proud of his uncle’s service, but skeptical of the iconic phrase “no man left behind.”

“Sounds good,” Patterson said after a long pause. “But it’s physically impossible if you’re not winning and we were not winning.”

Lt. Nininger was buried in a churchyard along with a number of other soldiers.

In 1951, after a number of requests to bring his remains home, the government closed the investigation and called Nininger “nonrecoverable.”

Patterson started poking around in the 1960s, but didn’t get very far.

Lt. Sandy Nininger

He kept searching for clues in the decades to come, and in 1985, a big break came when he tracked down an Army intelligence officer who served with his uncle.

“He was buried right here,” Patterson said, pointing to the map that was drawn by the officer.

The body was moved three times, but in the following years Patterson found documents that provided a paper trail to a numbered grave in the Manilla American Cemetery.

Patterson is one of seven plaintiffs who are suing a number of entities, but the main culprit according the lawsuit is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The agency has an annual budget of more than $110 million to “locate, recover and identify” remains. But the lawsuit, filed in late May, states the DPAA’s “failures and inaction” are to blame for Nininger and the six other American troops named in the document, not being recovered.

Like Patterson, all the plaintiffs can document the numbered grave in the Manilla American Cemetery where they suspect their loved ones are interred.

This map shows where Nininger was initially buried.

Lt. Nininger, remains X—1130, are buried in grave J-7-20 according to documents Patterson pried from the government.

“If you want to disinter the remains based on the original recommendations, based on the work that the family has done, you do it,” Patterson said. “And to just keep paperwork, paperwork, paperwork, bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy. It’s stupid.”

The DPAA told Target 12 the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but emphasized their “mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.”

According to the DPAA, 164 U.S. service members and civilians were identified in 2016, which was said to be double the number identified in previous years.

By Patterson’s count, Nininger’s family has asked the government to exhume his body five times, and been denied five times.

The most recent response came in May of 2016.

“There must be at least a 50 percent likelihood that an identification will be made,” the denial letter stated.

Patterson offered a wry grin after reading the letter.

“It’s all gobbledy-gook,” he said. “There are several of us now who are not giving up, which is really great because I was at this myself for a very long time.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau