Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 7, 2008

World War II mystery

I was gathering papers to take home from work when I glanced up and saw a couple who looked a bit lost passing my office door. I smiled.

"Let's ask her," I heard the man say to the woman.

As they came into my office, I stood up to greet them and asked, "Can I help you?"

I soon learned they were on a mission. Harold was putting together information about his brother Stanley, who had served in World War II, and daughter Kay was helping him. Their immediate goal was to find a display honoring Stanley and seven fellow journalism students who were killed in action during the war. They had a photo of the "honor roll," which included framed portraits of the eight men with a bronze plaque beneath. They also had an old newspaper article which said the pictures would hang in Kedzie Hall.

I racked my brain. I was a journalism student in Kedzie Hall in the 1970s and returned as an instructor in the 1980s, but I don't recall having seen the World War II display.

But I couldn't just let it go at that, sending Harold and Kay on their way. Husband Art and I love family history and we're curious enough that we've solved not just many of our own family mysteries, but also a few for others as well. So I began making calls.

The woman at K-State Archives was unable to help right then, but took down the information and promised to follow up on it. She suggested calling Military Science as she understood that department is collecting information related to military history. The person there also said she'd call back.

As we waited, I learned more about Harold and Kay's quest. A B-17 pilot, Stanley was stationed in Italy and had been shot down on May 10, 1944 on a mission over Austria. Of the 10-person crew, five bailed out and were taken prisoner, three were found dead and were buried near the site, and two crewmen, one of whom was Stanley, went down with the plane and were unaccounted for. The family heard of Stanley's disappearance while Harold himself was being trained as a B-17 pilot.

In 1998, a distant relative's map from a trip to Austria pinpointed the location of the town where Stanley and his crew crashed.

Kay said she never heard her grandparents or father talk about what had happened. But that changed when she helped her Dad go through some old trunks, one of which held letters and other memorabilia from Stanley.

After doing more research, Kay contacted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), whose mission is to account for all missing servicemen from this country's previous wars. In 2006, Stanley's crash site was chosen for excavation. Harold and his wife, along with Kay and some of her family traveled to Austria and stayed for 30 days, watching as the recovery team sifted through the dirt near the site.

Among items found were parts of the plane, a piece of leather and a zipper - probably part of a flight jacket, and a dime dated 1916, the year Stanley was born. The family believes he may have carried it as a good-luck charm.

Harold even had the opportunity to speak with a man who was 13 in 1944 and had seen the plane crash.

But no human remains were found. Still, the family is hopeful that one day Stanley's remains will be found so he can be buried next to his parents. The family ended their trip by placing a memorial at the crash site.

As Harold, Kay and I waited for the return phone call, Harold also talked about some of his war-time experiences. He recalled the food drops made over Holland after the war ended. He said they weren't allowed to land so they just had to drop food from the planes. On the first day, the fields below were empty of people, but on the second day, people had tied sheets together into a V-shape and made messages such as "Thanks, Yanks!" large enough that they could be seen from the air.

I got goose bumps.

The person in Military Science called back and said they weren't familiar with the World War II display.

But that wasn't surprising for it was a long time ago. It just means it's time to try harder. I exchanged contact information with Harold and Kay and by the next day, Art had already e-mailed Kay with more questions. I contacted the K-State Foundation, which more than likely has records of those who donated to the World War II Honor Roll fund. During Spring Break, I plan to go through boxes of historical materials in Kedzie Hall to see if I can't find the missing photos and bronze plaque.

And why bother? I think there are two reasons. First, if our military can spend hours in remote places searching through mounds of rubble to locate a trace of a lost serviceman, what is a few hours in a cozy office? Second, Stanley was a young man who gave all he had to serve his country, so setting aside some time to honor that service doesn't seem like much to me.

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