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COLUMN ONE

The Final Mission Is Completed

The fate of Lt. Bill Lewis, whose plane was shot down over Germany in WWII, was a mystery until his daughter and a friend set out to solve it.

November 02, 2002|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

OBERHOF, Germany — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 04, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing in action -- A story Saturday in Section A on the search for the remains of missing U.S. servicemen from World War II misspelled the name of the Thuringian Forest in Germany.

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.

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