Donna Esposito

Donna Esposito '94 at the Promontory, White Beach, Peleliu for the 75th anniversary of the battle, 15 Sept. 2019. Philadelphia Marine PFC Haig Sarafian (left) remains missing in action. His friend, Pvt. Charles Wartell (right), was wounded in the battle. Esposito, a molecular biology major, now uses her research skills to investigate WWII-era mysteries.

Lehigh Alumna Explores WWII Mysteries

Donna Esposito has written two WWII-era novels and helped with the repatriation of an MIA American soldier.

Story by

Christina Tatu

When Donna Esposito ’94 was 9, her father took her to see a production of “South Pacific.” That began a lifelong fascination with the Pacific campaigns of WWII, inspiring two novels and a trip to the Solomon Islands, where she helped with the repatriation of an American soldier who was missing in action.

A molecular biology major turned historian, Esposito describes herself as a “WWII Nancy Drew” after the fictionalized teen detective. “The one thing I never understood was where did she get all these mysteries to solve?” said Esposito, an avid reader of the book series. “I felt like I never had any mysteries to solve, which is why I think I went into science.”

From Scientist to Historian

After graduating from Lehigh, Esposito earned a Ph.D. in genetics from Cornell University and eventually went on to manage a genetic testing lab. When the lab shut down in 2014, Esposito decided to pursue her passion as a WWII researcher and independent writer. In 2016, she finished her first novel, “Flying Time,” about a young woman home from college who finds a “sweetheart charm” at a flea market. Such charms were made by soldiers during the war to send home to a wife or girlfriend. In the book, the young woman finds herself transported back in time and must return the charm to its rightful owner. Esposito based the novel on her own experience, finding a Lucite heart made from the windshield of a plane at a flea market. After writing the book, Esposito decided to fulfill her dream of visiting the South Pacific. That’s when she says the plot of her novel started coming true in real life.

“When I wrote the book, I dreamed of going to the Solomon Islands. I wanted to go in 1992 for the 50th anniversary (of the Battle of Guadalcanal) and ended up not going,” she said. “Next thing you know, 25 years went by, and I was finally able to go in 2017 for the 75th anniversary.”

One of the stops on her tour included Guadalcanal, location of one of the first prolonged campaigns in the Pacific, fought between August 1942 and February 1943. The victory was the first step in a series of successes that eventually led to the surrender of Japan and the occupation of the Japanese home islands.

“This was a pilgrimage I needed to make, but I anticipated it would be a one-time thing,” Esposito said. “I could have never guessed the journey it would take me on.”

On her last night there, Esposito was approached by a villager who said his friend’s 8-year-old son had recently found remains with a set of U.S. Army dog tags along the path to a popular waterfall on the island. Esposito believes the man came to her because people knew she was a researcher.

Donna Esposito

Donna Esposito climbing to the top of Hill 100 on the island of Peleliu to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle in September 2019. Photo: David McQuillen.

Dog Tag Detective

The man gave Esposito a rubbing on paper of the dog tags and a pressed souvenir penny from Hawaii that was found with them. Because of Esposito’s prior WWII research, she was able to determine the tags belonged to Dale Warren Ross of Oregon, who was missing in action since January 1943.

“That was very stunning to me. … Looking back, I feel like there was a reason I was called to this island all along,” Esposito said.

On Jan. 14, 1943, Ross, of the 25th Infantry Division, 35th Infantry Regiment, Company E, was reported as killed in action when he went missing after an engagement with a Japanese patrol. Ross was never recovered, despite a prolonged search, and his case was closed in May 1949. There are 72,232 service members still missing in action from WWII, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Many of them were lost in the South Pacific, Esposito said. Guadalcanal, where Ross was found, is a remote, mountainous island with jungles.

When Esposito returned home from her trip, she contacted Ross’ family, who didn’t initially believe he was found, but contacted a casualty affairs officer at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which keeps track of soldiers missing from war. The next step was to return to Guadalcanal to collect the remains and return them to the proper agency for genetic testing to confirm Ross’ identity. In August 2017, just two months after her initial trip, Esposito returned to Guadalcanal with members of Ross’ family and Pacific Wrecks, a nonprofit organization that assists in bringing home those missing in action.

Esposito sees similarities in her experience in Guadalcanal and her first novel.

“I wrote this book about a young woman finding an artifact and returning it to its rightful owner, then I finally go to this island and find something far more precious and I have to make sure it gets home. I had to return Dale to his family,” Esposito said.

Ross’ remains were transferred to a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 transport plane and taken to a laboratory for genetic testing. Ross’ official identification was announced in April 2019, and he was buried that September in Oregon next to his mother and brothers who also served in WWII.

Donna Esposito

Donna Esposito at Barana Village on Guadalcanal in 2017, surrounded by Willie Bessi Davis (left, in front of flags) and his family. Willie discovered Private First Class Dale W. Ross’ dog tags and remains. Ross has been missing since January 1943.

Esposito has since traveled to Papua New Guinea in 2018 to help identify the wreckage of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber. In 2019, she went to Peleliu in the Palau Islands to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu and search for an MIA marine from Philadelphia. Esposito recently completed a new novel to be released later this year, “Ivy Linden and the Treasure of Skull Island.”

Set in 1938, it is the first book in a series about the adventures of ethnobotanist Ivy Linden. Esposito fondly recalls her time at Lehigh, where she explored downtown Bethlehem, visiting the Orr’s Department Store and a lunch counter inside Woolworth’s on Main Street. Against the backdrop of Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces, Esposito says she felt “transported to another time.” As a student, she hosted “Sunday Swing,” on the campus radio station, featuring music of the 1940s. Her time at Lehigh was also instrumental to her research. It’s where Esposito realized “the thrill of discovery,” from the science labs she worked in, to the anthropology courses she took.

“There was a point early on in my life where I imagined all these adventures, then real life took over and I regarded them as ridiculous, but it’s not,” Esposito said. “If you have a passion for something, go and do it.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

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