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Honoring our roots: Offutt family returns

From left to right, 56 Squadron Leader David Hockley and 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion place their respective country’s wreaths on the gravesite of Lt. Jarvis Offutt at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska Aug. 13, 2018. A ceremony was held during the 2018 Offutt Air Force Base air and space show to honor Offutt who the base is named after. Offutt was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago while serving in the 56 Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

From left to right, 56 Squadron Leader David Hockley and 55th Wing Commander Col. Michael Manion place their respective country’s wreaths on the gravesite of Lt. Jarvis Offutt at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Omaha, Nebraska Aug. 13, 2018. A ceremony was held during the 2018 Offutt Air Force Base air and space show to honor Offutt who the base is named after. Offutt was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago while serving in the 56 Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Honor Guard

Members of the 55th Wing Honor Guard fold American and British flags as part of a ceremony held Aug. 12, 2018 during the Offutt Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show to honor the late Jarvis Offutt who the base is named after. Offutt was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago. Leadership from the 55th Wing and the Royal Air Force presented the flags to members of the Offutt family following the folding ceremony. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Col. Michael Manion, 55th Wing commander, hands John Offutt an American flag as part of a ceremony held Aug. 12, 2018 during the Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The ceremony honored the late Lt. Jarvis Offutt who the base is named after. He was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago. John Offutt is the great-great nephew of Lt. Jarvis Offutt and recently returned to the area to attend University of Nebraska Omaha. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Col. Michael Manion, 55th Wing commander, hands John Offutt an American flag as part of a ceremony held Aug. 12, 2018 during the Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The ceremony honored the late Lt. Jarvis Offutt who the base is named after. He was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago. John Offutt is the great-great nephew of Lt. Jarvis Offutt and recently returned to the area to attend University of Nebraska Omaha. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Members of the Royal Air Force speak to members of the Offutt family in the 55th Wing Association’s historical tent during the Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show on Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, Aug. 12, 2018. A ceremony was held during the air show to honor the late Lt. Jarvis Offutt who the base is named after. He was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)(U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

Members of the Royal Air Force speak to members of the Offutt family in the 55th Wing Association’s historical tent during the Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show on Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, Aug. 12, 2018. A ceremony was held during the air show to honor the late Lt. Jarvis Offutt who the base is named after. He was the first Omaha native to die in WWI when his plane was shot down over France 100 years ago. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)(U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

On Aug. 13, 2018, one hundred years, to the day of his passing, generations of Lt. Jarvis Offutt descendants gathered around his grave, white roses in hand.

In their company were members of the 55th Wing, who call Offutt Air Force Base home, members of the Royal Air Force 56 Squadron, the unit Lt. Offutt perished serving, and many others who wished to share in honoring his legacy.

At the culmination of a wreath laying ceremony by allied countries, 56 Squadron Leader David Hockley, took a minute to recite a stanza from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen.”

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.”

Remembrance was a common theme throughout the Offutt family visit – looking back to when they settled in the Nebraska territories.

“Jarvis’ grandfather, Casper Yost, came to Nebraska in the 1860s before Nebraska was a state,” said Mary Offutt Novelli. “He was a lawyer from Michigan. We have a proclamation from Abraham Lincoln, who appointed him the Marshall of the Nebraska territory.”

By the turn of the 20th Century, the Offutt family had become prominent members of the Omaha community. Lt. Offutt was one of three children to Charles and Bertha Offutt – Virginia and Casper were his siblings.

As the years passed and the family expanded, the Offutts eventually relocated all across the United States and even parts of Canada. It wasn’t until recently that Lt. Offutt’s great-great nephew, John Offutt, who also happens to be a pilot, decided to return and attend the University of Nebraska Omaha for his graduate’s degree in 2008.

But, this isn’t the only tale to come full circle. As fate would have it, the RAF 56 Squadron, through multiple wars, disbandments, and moves, found themselves aligned with the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission.

They began a partnership with Offutt as a result of a letter of agreement signed by the Department of Defense and the U.K. Ministry of Defense in March 2010 enabling the RAF to purchase several RC-135 Rivet Joints to replace their Nimrod R1s. As a result, members of the Royal Air Force visit Offutt regularly to train on the airframe.

“The 56 Squadron is a test and evaluation squadron,” said Master Aircrew Keith “Nutty” Wing, a RAF Rivet Joint specialist. “We test not so much the people, but the equipment. Working along the 55th Wing, I have, genuinely, had some of the best times.”

It was from that relationship, the idea to research Lt. Offutt arose – instrumental in the findings was Maj. Rosie Perez-Howell, who served as a U.S. Exchange Officer with the 56 Squadron for three years.

“During that time, I stumbled across a Battle of Britain history book of the RAF squadron I was serving in,” said Perez-Howell. “I read about the first U.S. exchange officer to serve in the 56 Squadron, Lt. Jarvis Offutt.”

From there, the investigation grew. After uncovering the grave and realizing the 100 year anniversary of Lt. Offutt’s passing was quickly approaching, Ken Bauer and Mike Hoskins, 55th Wing Plans and Programs office, began trying to contact the family.

They were successful.

The closest living relative to Lt. Offutt is his nephew, Casper Offutt, who is 91 and resides in California. The last time he was on base was for his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in 1971.

Unfortunately, he was unable to make the visit, but was still an integral part to the planning of the event.  Passing the word along to his kin, they were able to arrive in town the day before the wreath laying ceremony.

The family visited the base and attended the Defenders of Freedom Air and Space Show.  During the visit, the Offutt Honor Guard conducted a flag folding ceremony for the Union Jack and Old Glory before the show’s heritage flight finale.  

Between the air and space show and the memorial at the cemetery, Offutt’s family and the legacy of the base will be kept alive for many years to come.

“The 56 Squadron has a saying, ‘once a firebird, always a firebird,’ and I can tell you that the Offutt family will always be considered a firebird,” said Col. Michael Manion, 55th WG commander. “On behalf of a very grateful nation, and on behalf of the United States Air Force, the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth wing and all of Offutt Air Force Base, we thank you and we honor you and we will always remember Jarvis Offutt.”