Bill Lewis was closing in on the day he would return to his wife, Eleanor, and their baby daughter when he climbed into his P-51 Mustang on Sept. 11, 1944, for the mission deep into German airspace that would be his last.
The pilot, just 22, and hundreds of others like him would be shielding a massive squadron of U.S. bombers from attack by Luftwaffe warplanes. Their ultimate targets were the factories and oil refineries that made up the industrial heartland of the Nazi empire.
From his concrete barracks on the plains of England’s southeast coast, Lewis had flown dozens of combat missions and had yet to make direct contact with a German plane. “As far as I’m concerned,” he wrote his mother on July 26, commenting on his comfortable quarters and bed with sheets, “I don’t know very much about war.”
Heading east toward the oil refineries of Ruhland that were their targets, Lewis and 35 other American pilots found themselves locked in battle with German fighters in the blue skies over Germany’s lush Thurlingian Forest. In an intense dogfight that lasted no more than 10 minutes, the enemy planes hurtled toward each other in a deadly airborne dance. By noon, four American planes were down.
Nobody saw Lewis get hit, but one American pilot said he saw a P-51 flying upside down and on fire just before it plunged into the deep pine cover of a mountain peak known as the Griefenberg.
Adalbert Wolf was a soft-spoken man who lived alone and took long walks in the ancient Thurlingian Forest surrounding his mountain village of Oberhof. It was a few days after the fiery fight in the skies when, he later told relatives and friends, he came across the wreckage of an American fighter plane smoldering on the slopes of the Griefenberg.
The gaping hole it had made in the forest floor was still smoking, the ground and trees in all directions littered with tiny fragments of fuselage and human remains.
Wolf could not leave the man to hang in pieces in the trees, his niece, Regina Wolf, recalled recently. He gathered what he could and buried it nearby. He must have found dog tags or something else bearing the pilot’s name. Because there it was on a wooden cross Wolf crafted and drove into the ground where the plane had gone down: W Lewis USA gef. 11.9.44. “Gef,” abbreviated German for “fallen.”
What Wolf knew about W Lewis’s fate would remain hidden for more than six decades. After the war, he tried to tell authorities, but his town was by then locked tight behind the Iron Curtain separating East Germany from West. Wolf’s attempts to bring attention to the crash site earned him little but trouble, according to his family.
He came under surveillance by East Germany’s notorious Stasi secret police, who filed a report on the crash but never told Western authorities. The scarred slopes sprouted new grass and tall pines. Wolf, his life shattered by the pressure of being watched by the Stasi, died in 1984. The cross became old and worn. And the secret of who perished on that hillside was frozen in the chill of the Cold War.
On a crisp morning early last summer, the stillness of the Griefenberg was broken by the sounds of spades and shovels. Led to this place by a trail of evidence, sightings and the deeply personal motivations of an unlikely assortment of people, a U.S. Army excavation team had arrived to plumb its secrets.
The team was from an Army unit in Hawaii, half a world away. Created after the Vietnam War primarily to find and recover Americans missing in action in Southeast Asia, the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory -- CILHI, as it is known -- is relatively new to the task of bringing home American servicemen who died in the Second World War.
Remarkably, there are more than 78,000 American servicemen still listed as missing in action from World War II, dwarfing the roughly 1,900 still unaccounted for from Vietnam. While many of the dead went down on ships in large naval battles and are unlikely ever to be recovered, thousands more perished in places that most Americans assume have long given up their secrets -- the fields and mountains of Europe among them.
But in the 1940s, there were no helicopters to speedily extract the fallen from battlefields and only primitive means to raise them from watery graves. Unreliable radar made keeping track of warplanes difficult, and unsophisticated technology for identifying remains made giving a name to badly charred or disintegrating corpses daunting.
Nor was there much political clamor to bring the World War II missing home. Unlike the families of those who fought in Vietnam, angry at a society that came to oppose the war, the families of the men who disappeared in World War II lived in a country that questioned -- and expected -- less. Telegrams like the one William Lewis’ mother received -- “YOUR SON WILLIAM LEWIS HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING IN ACTION SINCE ELEVEN SEPTEMBER OVER GERMANY” -- shattered lives but not trust in country.
In the last few years, that attitude has begun to change. Driven by a resurgence of interest in all things related to the war that brought down the Nazis, and pleas from World War II veteran groups whose members are dying at the rate of 30,000 a month, federal money has begun to flow. Since 2000, CILHI’s annual budget has nearly doubled to about $20 million.
The new funding has bolstered a little-noted effort by the military, aviation buffs, historians and families to search out World War II missing that already has had startling results. In 1995, just five missing World War II servicemen were recovered by CILHI. Since then the number has jumped to more than 30 each year. Increasingly, the focus is on Europe.
That is what broke the quiet of the Thurlingian Forest last summer. A dozen Army specialists, led by an archeologist and aided by volunteers, hacked at the soft, grassy mounds beneath the tall pine trees with shovels, rakes, sifters and brooms, looking for Bill Lewis.
Lewis had made it home to Tulsa, Okla., in April 1944, just in time for the birth of his daughter, Sharon. He had only a few days with his new family before heading to England.
Within six months, he had completed half of his overseas tour, which called for 300 hours of flying time. Eleanor began to hope that he could be home by Christmas. Lewis spoke to his fellow pilots often of his beloved wife and young daughter, several recalled, keeping careful track of when he might rejoin them and take up the life he had left behind.
As for Eleanor Lewis, a stack of worn and yellowed newspaper clippings carefully cut and stowed away in a cardboard box are testament to what she must have endured in the days, weeks and months after her husband disappeared.
The clippings gave her good reason to worry. They detailed the massive raids on three consecutive days that September targeting cities, factories and oil refineries deep in eastern Germany. The new, faster and more agile planes like that flown by her husband were essential to the battle plan, because their longer range allowed them to accompany the bombers farther into German territory than ever before.
In all, 1,131 American bombers and 440 fighter planes set out for German skies on that Sept. 11 mission. More than 500 German planes were there to fight them. By day’s end, 40 American bombers and 17 fighters were lost.
“The big raid of the 11th and 12th with around 439 fighters has worried me so much and I’m living for [Bill’s] letters of those dates,” Eleanor wrote her mother on Sept. 13. “I sure do love that man and miss him terribly. He’ll be back soon and I’ll be so happy. I can hardly wait.”
The telegram arrived 11 days later.
Grief-stricken and frightened, Eleanor, just turned 23, pushed the Army relentlessly for information about his disappearance. Might he have been taken prisoner? Could he have survived a crash and be wandering, dazed and alone, in enemy territory? War Department records show she got little response.
Her waiting got harder before it got easier. As the war ended, the newspapers were filled with stories of young men coming home from the war. Eleanor, dispirited, living with her mother and caring for her baby, clipped and saved them.
“Tulsa Flier Liberated” read one headline she stashed away in her trunk. And another: “Area Aviator Returns Home.”
Though Bill never came home, a church friend of theirs, Nelson Williamson, did. A soldier who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he left a party at his mother’s house celebrating his safe return at war’s end to search out Eleanor when he heard of her plight. When Sharon, standing on the porch as a toddler with her mother, saw the tall man in uniform walking toward them, she ran to him, crying, “Daddy!”
By 1946, hopes faded. The Army, still in the dark about the flier’s fate, sent Eleanor a letter declaring him officially dead. With the letter came a Purple Heart. The next year, Eleanor married Williamson, and they started a new home and life. He adopted Sharon, and the couple had two children of their own. The young widow’s grief mellowed, taking a quiet place in the far recesses of her memory.
Into that same place went her thoughts of Lewis, the clippings and other memorabilia, packed away in a cardboard suitcase she bound with string and stashed on a high closet shelf in her mother’s house. As Sharon grew, Eleanor told her who her real father had been, but not much more.
The box remained unopened until Sharon was in her 20s. One day her grandmother retrieved it from the closet. As Sharon remembers the moment, her mother at first denied knowing anything about it. When Sharon unknotted the string and started pulling out the photos and letters and the medal, her mother’s eyes filled with tears.
“I can remember as a child when my grandmother, my real dad’s mother, would come visit, my mom and my new father didn’t want to hear about Bill,” Sharon, now 58, recalled in a recent interview. “ ‘That was in the past. Bill was gone. Bill was dead. Let’s just move on.’ ”
But for her entire childhood, every time Sharon saw a man in uniform she imagined that maybe he would turn around, walk toward her and be her daddy, Bill Lewis, come home.
Sharon Cross was at a New Year’s party celebrating the millennium when talk turned to her dad. A mother twice over, Cross at age 56 was a warm woman given to big turquoise jewelry and comfortable living in suburban Houston. She did not often dwell openly on the mystery of her father’s death.
She knew he had been lost in World War II. She had seen the photos, some letters, the Purple Heart. But her childhood fantasy that her dad would someday return was bundled away in adulthood as tightly as the ties binding that trunk.
Now her mother was dead, her stepfather had remarried, a new century was starting and she was feeling melancholy, saddened that she knew so little about the man who had given her life. She had seen “Saving Private Ryan,” and been moved by its tales of World War II dead, by the image of P-51s, the plane she knew her father had flown, sweeping in over Normandy. She learned there were others like her searching for answers.
“I said, I’d like to get involved in that. There was an interest nationwide in World War II that had not happened before. I hadn’t thought about my dad for years, but I just got stirred to do something,” Cross said. “I wanted to know. I want my children to know their heritage. Mom’s dead and I’m angry at myself that I started asking these questions too late to help her. But I want to bring Dad home.”
Sharon enlisted the help of a family friend, Ken Breaux, a former Vietnam-era naval officer who had his own ghosts to chase. Breaux had trained as an aviator, but when he saw the rate at which Navy pilots were dying in Vietnam, he managed to secure a position that afforded him the relative safety of a ship. He never completely conquered the guilt he felt that others were dying instead of him.
Breaux, a computer consultant, took up the search for Lewis as a personal crusade. Using his knowledge of military aircraft and the Internet, he tackled what he thought would be a relatively simple mystery.
His inquiry at first led nowhere. There was no burial place for William Lewis in any cemetery maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. No explanation of his disappearance existed in U.S. military records. There was no definitive civilian record of his death in the U.S. After 57 years, Lewis was still missing in action.
“When I began this search, I felt that it was possible that Sharon’s mother had known of the circumstances, but that after her marriage and the passage of years, she had simply chosen not to tell Sharon of the details,” Breaux said recently. “Now I felt that it was possible that Bill Lewis’ loss was a mystery that even the Army Air Forces, with all their resources, had failed to solve.”
Breaux’s research took him into the expanding universe of people who are caught up in the story of World War II missing. Some had lost family or friends in the war. Some, like Breaux, were veterans who felt the guilt of survivors. Some were aviation buffs or adventurers who set off on their own for places like Papua New Guinea, looking for World War II aircraft crash sites. Others, like Sharon, had been children when they lost fathers in the war and were only now asking serious questions. The Internet brought all those different people together with new ease.
And so it was that, after months spent surfing online bulletin boards and putting out queries about the missing Bill Lewis, Breaux signed on to his computer one evening in January 2001 and was greeted by a most amazing e-mail.
It was from one Jan Zdiarsky, writing from the town of Kovarska in the Czech Republic. Zdiarsky wrote that he had been researching a little documented air battle for many years, assembling detailed accounts of all the pilots, German and American. According to his records, he wrote, of 140 airmen killed, captured or missing in action, only a William M. Lewis had not yet been found.
What’s more, Zdiarsky said he believed that a colleague had discovered the crash site of Lewis’ plane two years earlier, in a forest a few hours from Kovarska, in what had been East Germany.
He said he had been trying to find Lewis’ family ever since.
In March 1982, workers rewiring the electrical system of a school building in Kovarska, a Czech town that had been occupied by Nazi Germany, came across a bundle in an air shaft. Wrapped in a pair of World War II-era flying overalls, inside a leather wallet, were documents bearing the name Staff Sgt. John C. Kluttz of Dallas, Texas.
The dusty bundle fell at the feet of Jan Zdiarsky, then 12, standing with other schoolchildren watching the repair work.
The discovery excited Jan’s imagination. He had heard the stories old men told about a great air battle fought over Kovarska. But in Czechoslovakia, by then in the Soviet sphere, gathering facts about the battle was not easy. For years Jan and his friends secretly combed forests and fields, often finding shards of fighter plane fuselage. What they pieced together was that indeed a great battle had been fought over Kovarska’s skies. The plane piloted by John Kluttz was just one of a half-dozen aircraft, American and German, that had crashed in and around the town.
By the time Zdiarsky hooked up with Breaux, he was a grown man whose boyish interests had led to great things. Fueled by curiosity and passion, he had founded a museum in Kovarska dedicated to the memory of the Sept. 11 battle and to the men, American and German, who had fought in it.
“Children like to solve mysteries, puzzles,” said Zdiarsky, now 32 and a computer technician at a university near Kovarska.
“I remember one afternoon when I was sitting in a meadow, on the grass, and I had just found some parts of airplane fuselage and I thought, ‘Somebody was killed in this airplane. Somebody was victorious that day.’ Sitting there, I began to have this dream of knowing who those boys were who had fought each other in those airplanes. It became the dream that has carried me along to today.”
Zdiarsky had traveled far and wide pursuing the pieces to his puzzle. When the Cold War walls came down, he cobbled the money together to come to the United States to continue his research. At the National Archives in College Park, Md., he found a treasure trove: a list of every American pilot who had flown on the Ruhland missions that day, their flight orders and their craft.
From that and other public but long-ignored records, Zdiarsky painstakingly pieced together the stories of the men who had fought the battle he had come to think of as his own. But he was not quite finished. One missing piece was the fate of Lt. William M. Lewis, who the records showed had flown on the mission that day but not returned.
“Our search at first was not personal,” Zdiarsky recalled. “Bill Lewis at first was just one of 80 airmen who had been killed in our battle. He was special only in that we knew he was still missing. He was interesting to us as is a piece of a mosaic that you need to find.”
Back in Europe, Zdiarsky scoured German records, and concluded that at least one plane must have gone down near Oberhof. Zdiarsky figured that if he could find a crash site near the German village, he might discover what had become of Lewis. In the spring of 1999, overwhelmed with work at his job, he sent two friends to search.
At the base of a pine tree, surrounded by shards of airplane fuselage small and large, they found what Zdiarsky, Cross and Breaux now believe was the answer: A wooden cross, its once yellow paint flaking and faded, still stood. On its arms, in red paint, still legible, was written: W Lewis USA gef. 11.9.44.
While Cross and Breaux in Houston, and Zdiarsky in the Czech Republic, were winding through their separate odysseys, pressure was building in Washington to do more to find World War II fighters still missing.
In the past, most of CILHI’s emphasis had been on the former battlefields of the Vietnam War.
But veteran groups, allied with Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), the son of a World War II aviator who died in action and a Vietnam vet himself, pushed through legislation that provided a major jump in funding for the World War II recovery efforts.
At CILHI, the increased money bought tangible change. Staffing went up by 50, including a phalanx of scientific investigators. Today, CILHI deploys 18 search and recovery teams about 180 days a year, their mission to bring back people such as Lewis.
Armed with shovels, old maps and diagrams of vintage airplanes, they dig around the world, sifting through thousands of buckets of dirt, searching for bone fragments and tiny pieces of equipment that a fighter pilot would have worn more than half a century ago.
They bring their findings to the unit’s Hawaii laboratories, which have the largest staff of forensic anthropologists and odontologists in the world.
In Houston, Breaux shared the extraordinary news with Cross: His Internet search had turned up a stranger in the Czech Republic who might lead them to her father. Their evidence was enough to launch the Hawaii army investigators on the case.
The CILHI team got to Oberhof on a sunny afternoon in July and started digging.
They were about a dozen young men, products of today’s volunteer army, a military whose foundational promise is to take care of its own.
It pledges to its members that if they die while doing their job -- in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Iraq -- the military will find them and bring them home.
The men doing the digging all had stories to tell about why their assignment was meaningful.
One, Tech Sgt. Dennis Shields of Hillman, Mich., lost his father in a building fire. His dad’s body was never found.
“It would have helped me to have closure if I could have buried his body,” Shields said, sifting through mud and debris at the Oberhof crash site.
“I still think about him every day, so this is a way that I can bring closure to other people.”
Within three weeks, the diggers had found and cataloged hundreds of pieces of bone, airplane fuselage and fragments of the survival equipment the pilot was wearing when the plane went down.
While the team flew on to another crash site, in Bulgaria, the bits and pieces gathered at Oberhof were sent to Hawaii for forensic analysis that could take a year or more. The tests could confirm what Sharon Cross, Ken Breaux and Jan Zdiarsky now believe -- that Bill Lewis perished on the slopes above Oberhof long ago.
Adalbert Wolf, the man who found W. Lewis and fashioned his cross, left no letters or documents chronicling his very private encounter.
His niece, Regina, was 6 when the plane came down. She was on the slopes of the Griefenberg last July, looking down from a ridge at the American soldiers conducting their search.
Wolf had gone back to the site again and again, bringing flowers, she said, and sitting for hours alone. He worried about the family of the downed pilot, hoping for news.
“When he talked about that place, it was always with great sadness,” Wolf said. “He said it was as if he buried his brother there. This man was not the enemy for him, he was like a person he knew.
“His whole life he wanted Lewis’ relatives to know what had happened there. It was something he felt in his heart,” Wolf said.
“It would be a very good ending for him if the relatives of this man get their answers.”