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A U.S. B-25 aircraft in New Guinea in November 1943. (Public domain) A U.S. B-25 aircraft in New Guinea in November 1943. (Public domain)

A U.S. B-25 aircraft in New Guinea in November 1943. (Public domain)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 18, 2024

Was one of President Joe Biden’s relatives eaten by cannibals during World War II? As far-fetched as that scenario might sound, Biden said it was possible while visiting Pennsylvania on April 17.

While visiting Scranton, his family’s hometown, for a speech, Biden sought out a local veterans’ memorial where his uncle, Ambrose J. Finnegan, is honored. Finnegan, who was called "Uncle Bosie," died during World War II, when the future president was a toddler.

Reporters asked Biden about the memorial visit before he boarded Air Force One at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. Biden said his uncle’s plane was shot down over New Guinea — and he floated cannibalism as the reason his remains were never recovered. 

"He got shot down in an area where there were a lot of cannibals in New Guinea at the time," Biden said. "They never recovered his body. But the government went back … and they checked and found some parts of the plane and the like."

Biden said he was contrasting his uncle’s military service with a reported 2020 statement by his opponent, former President Donald Trump, that service members were a bunch of "suckers" and "losers." (Trump has denied saying this, but one of his White House chiefs of staff, John Kelly, later corroborated that Trump said it.)

Biden mentioned cannibalism again later the same day, while speaking at the United Steelworkers’ Pittsburgh headquarters. 

"He flew those single-engine planes as reconnaissance over war zones," Biden said. "And he got shot down in New Guinea, and they never found the body because there used to be — there were a lot of cannibals, for real, in that part of New Guinea."

Could Finnegan have been eaten by cannibals? 

Although cannibalism existed in New Guinea, the military record and experts in New Guinea’s history and culture say it is unlikely that Finnegan was cannibalized, because the plane crashed into the ocean, and even if indigenous people had found Finnegan, a U.S. service member wouldn’t have fit into the two categories of people at risk of being cannibalized: enemies and family members.

Details of the plane crash

New Guinea, the world’s second-largest island, consists of two parts today: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua in the west.

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a plane carrying a three-man crew and Finnegan, a passenger, was "forced to ditch" in the ocean off the north coast of New Guinea "for unknown reasons" May 14, 1944. The engine in the plane, which had been on a courier mission, failed at low altitude; the account does not specify that it was "shot down," as Biden said.

"The aircraft's nose hit the water hard," the Pentagon agency documentation says. "Three men failed to emerge from the sinking wreck and were lost in the crash. One crew member survived and was rescued by a passing barge. An aerial search the next day found no trace of the missing aircraft or the lost crew members."

Finnegan was not linked to any remains recovered from the area after the war, and he is officially unaccounted for, the agency said. Finnegan is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

The White House did not answer our inquiry for this article. White House spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN that "President Biden is proud of his uncle’s service in uniform" and that he "highlighted his uncle’s story as he made the case for honoring our sacred commitment … to equip those we send to war and take care of them and their families when they come home.’"

Cannibalism existed, but a U.S. service member would be an unlikely target

We asked experts on New Guinea whether cannibalism was prevalent then. The experts said it existed, but added that it was uncommon when the plane crashed in the 1940s and that it almost certainly didn’t factor into the aftermath of the crash that killed Finnegan.

"There were regions of New Guinea where cannibalism was practiced in the past," said Alex Golub, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii-Mānoa. "The majority, perhaps the vast majority, of the population of the country never practiced it."

Experts cautioned that outsiders sometimes exaggerated stories of cannibalism to justify colonial rule. By the World War II era, authorities had largely suppressed cannibalism, sometimes by force.

"Explorers from Captain Cook to more recent twentieth-century encounters in the New Guinea Highlands have searched obsessively for evidence of cannibalism," said Rainer F. Buschmann, a historian at California State University Channel Islands. "Cannibalism then becomes an excuse to annex, exploit, and colonize the ‘other.’"

A U.S. service member wouldn’t have fit the profile of someone who might be cannibalized, experts said. 

"The categories of people, and their parts, that were eaten had to do with formalized social relationships, not strangers, or monsters from the air," said Frederick H. Damon, an emeritus anthropology professor at the University of Virginia. 

With cannibalism of family members, the practices were "part of an attempt to reincorporate some of the person back into his or her lineage," said Courtney Handman, an associate anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "It is much less likely that it would have been done for an unknown person who crashed his plane nearby."

Experts said many people in New Guinea knew enough about the war not to consider someone like Finnegan an enemy, especially if they lived near typical military flight paths, said Bruce M. Knauft, an Emory University anthropology professor. Some New Guineans volunteered to fight for the allies.

Even eight decades later, remains of World War II pilots are still being recovered on the island of New Guinea and off its coast. Given the need to cooperate on such searches, Biden is ill-advised to resurface the cannibalism trope, the University of Hawaii’s Golub said.

The people of New Guinea "volunteered to fight in World War II and otherwise aided the allied cause," Golub said. "They fought bravely and honorably, and very effectively, and their work to fight fascism is what deserves to be remembered, not rumors about cannibalism."

RELATED: No evidence to support Joe Biden's anecdote about giving uncle a Purple Heart while vice president

RELATED: Cannibalism in Haiti? Fact-checking the unfounded claims

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Our Sources

White House, remarks by President Biden Before Air Force One Departure, Avoca, Pennsylvania, April 17, 2024

White House, remarks by President Biden on New Actions to Protect U.S. Steel and Shipbuilding Industry from China’s Unfair Practices, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 17, 2024

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 2nd Lt. Ambrose J. Finnegan, accessed April 17, 2024

American Battle Monuments Commission, Ambrose J. Finnegan, accessed April 17, 2024, "Papua New Guinea," accessed April 17, 2024

Australian War Memorial, "Pacific Island Regiment," accessed April 17, 2024, "James Cook," accessed April 17, 2024

Smithsonian magazine, "What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller?" March 2014

The Atlantic, "Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers,'" Sept. 3, 2020

CNN, "Exclusive: John Kelly goes on the record to confirm several disturbing stories about Trump," Oct 3, 2023

Pawel P. Liberski, "Kuru: A Journey Back in Time from Papua New Guinea to the Neanderthals’ Extinction" (Pathogens), Sept. 2013 

CBS News, "Australian World War II bomber and crew's remains found amid 'saltwater crocodiles and low visibility' in South Pacific," April 11, 2024 

Email interview with Paul "Jim" Roscoe, professor of anthropology at the University of Maine, April 18, 2024

Email interview with Bruce M. Knauft, professor of anthropology at Emory University, April 18, 2024

Email interview with Courtney Handman, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, April 18, 2024

Email interview with Frederick H. Damon, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia, April 18, 2024

Email interview with Alex Golub, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii-Mānoa, April 17, 2024

Email interview with Rainer F. Buschmann, historian at California State University Channel Islands, April 18, 2024

Email interview with Rena Lederman, anthropology professor at Princeton University, April 17, 2024

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