United States Army Air Force pilot 1st. Lt. Frank Fazekas.
Brian Jopek/Lakeland Times
Members of the University of Wisconsin MIA Recovery and Identification Project, from left, Samantha Zinnen, Torrey Tiedeman and Ryna Wubben, gave a presentation on their work Feb. 4 at Nicolet College in Rhinelander.
2/29/2020 7:30:00 AM 'It's turning back the clock' UW MIA Recovery and Identification Team searches for those lost at war
In late May 1944, 22-year-old U.S. Army Air Force 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas of Trenton, New Jersey, was returning from a combat mission when the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter he was flying was shot down over northern France.
The crash site, in a field near the village of Buysscheure, was visited by a British recovery team in July 1946 and while parts of the Thunderbolt and some of Fazekas's personal effects were recovered, his remains were not located.
Eventually, officers with the American Graves Registration Command determined the remains were "unrecoverable."
However, in July 2012, a team of U.S. historians and an anthropologist visited the crash site and in August 2016 another team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, augmented by personnel from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), excavated the crash site and recovered possible remains.
The following year, the remains were positively identified as those of 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas and on March 28, 2018, they were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Fazekas' name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the Ardennes American cemetery in Neupré, Belgium, an American Battle Monuments Commission site, along with other U.S service personnel listed as missing in action from World War II.
As is customary each time the remains of a U.S. service member are identified, a rosette was placed next to his name.
Among those the DPAA thanked for assistance in getting some closure for the family of Frank Kazekas was the team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The name of the group is the "University of Wisconsin MIA Recovery and Identification Project" and on Feb. 4, three of its members - Dr. Ryan Wubben, a professor of emergency medicine at the UW-Madison's medical school; Torrey Tiedeman, the group's communications manager; and Samantha Zinnen, the group's historical research lead - gave a presentation on their work at the Nicolet College theater in Rhinelander. The presentation was sponsored, in part, by Nicolet's Learning in Retirement program.
Becoming "guinea pigs"
Wubben said he and the others weren't quite sure how to go about making the presentation.
"We could probably talk about this with you for hours," he said.
Over the course of the next hour, Wubben, Tiedeman and Zinnen took turns talking about the different aspects of the MIA Recovery and Identification Project, which Wubben said began in 2015.
Members of the team are all volunteers within the University of Wisconsin-Madison structure.
"It started with a gentleman from the Madison area who was doing research on his grandfather's Army unit in the Normandy campaign during World War II," Wubben said. "He found there was a person from his grandfather's unit - not his grandfather and not anyone he was related to - who was missing. That kind of intrigued him and he started down the 'rabbit hole' as we all have done when you start doing this historical research. It brings up questions and you start asking 'What happened to this person?' That actually started us down this path."
Wubben said when the man got to the point where he needed help from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in terms of DNA analysis, he reached out to the biotechnology center on the UW campus.
"There's a genetics and biotechnology building there," he said. "It's a world class, high end, DNA lab, essentially."
"They do DNA sequencing there and a variety of high tech, research oriented DNA testing there," he explained.
What that particular case did, Wubben said, was introduce the UW-Madison biotech lab to the Department of Defense and one of its programs, the DPAA.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, the forerunner of the DPAA, was deactivated in 2015.
"We became the first entity outside of the defense department that partnered with them (through the DPAA) to undertake these projects and these cases," Wubben said. "We essentially became the guinea pig or the pilot project."
Pfc. Lawrence Gordon
The team has been involved in three recoveries to this point and expects to be tasked with others.
In addition to the Fazekas case, members of the University of Wisconsin MIA Recovery and Identification Project were also involved in the recovery and identification of the remains of U.S. Army Private First Class Lawrence Gordon and another P-47 pilot, Second Lt. Walter Stone.
Gordon's was the first case the team worked on.
Gordon, 28, was a Canadian citizen assigned to a U.S. Army reconnaissance company with the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, deployed to France in the weeks after the Normandy invasion of June 1944.
According to a press release from the DPAA, Gordon was the commander of an M8 "Greyhound" armored car traveling near the village of Carrouges, France, when his vehicle was struck in the gas tank by German anti-tank fire, causing the armored car to catch fire and burn. "During this attack Gordon was reported as missing in action," the release stated. "His remains were not recovered after the attack."
Decades later, Gordon's remains were buried in Canada on Aug. 13, 2014, 70 years to the day after he was killed in France.
Wubben said Gordon had actually been working in Montana when the U.S. became involved in World War II.
"The story I had been told was that the armored car's crew saw a German dispatch motorcycle rider go by them," he said. "They (Gordon's crew) went after the motorcycle."
What happened next amounted to an ambush of the armored car by what Wubben said was the German crew of an 88 milimeter anti-tank gun.
"All four of the armored car's crew were killed," he said. "Three of them had known graves. Pfc. Lawrence Gordon, on the other hand, did not have a known grave."
Wubben said that's where the gentleman from the Madison area had been intrigued as to what happened to Gordon.
"Where did he go?" he asked. "Long story short, as it turns out he (Gordon) had been initially buried as an unknown American."
According to Wubben, Gordon had been initially identified as a German soldier.
"As it turns out, he was in a German cemetery," Wubben said. "That story goes is that he was wrapped in a German camouflage pancho."
With the exception of Marines fighting in the Pacific theater, U.S. troops didn't have camouflage pattern clothing at that time. The Germans, however, did.
Wubben said over time, church and cemetery records were examined and re-examined.
"They were able to narrow it down to one crypt in this German cemetery in Normandy where they thought Lawrence Gordon was probably interred within this above ground mausoleum," he said.
There were multiple steps to be taken once it was thought that was where Gordon was.
"The gentleman from the Madison area presented this case to the French, because it was in France," Wubben said. "Then to the Germans, because it was a German cemetery. Then the American military because he was fighting in the American military and the Canadians because he was a Canadian citizen. That took a year to a year and a half."
Eventually, Gordon was exhumed, a DNA match was found with living relatives, identification was authenticated and his remains returned to Canada.
"He now has a known grave in Canada in the family plot," Wubben said. While the members of University of Wisconsin MIA Recovery and Identification Project assisted the DPAA with the Gordon case, Wubben said the Fazekas case was actually the first one assigned to the group by the DPAA.
The Fazekas assignment
"It was the winter of 2015 into the spring of 2016," Wubben said. "This was the first time this had ever happened where a crash site in northern France that presumably still held not only the wreckage of the aircraft that was shot down during World War II, but the remains of the pilot (Fazekas) as well, who had never been recovered after he had been shot down."
Their success with the Fazekas project, "opened up the floodgates" in terms of partnerships between the Department of Defense and other universities, Wubben noted.
There are at least 80,000 missing service personnel from World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.
Not all will be recovered, especially those buried at sea or in aircraft lost over water, especially the deep waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
At some point, Wubben said because of their success and capabilities, the hope is the DPAA will allow the UW team to work on the cases of missing service personnel from Wisconsin. But for now, they'll work with the DPAA as required.
"We were the very first that they trusted with a case like this and we now have now established a track record with the Department of Defense that we are capable of taking on complex cases, huge excavations down to five meters," Wubben said.
Just about everything the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project team members needed was funded by the DPAA while the Fazekas case was being investigated..
"We were under very close scrutiny and watched very closely during the summer of 2016 while we went out to this small village in France to excavate this site," Wubben said.
With it being a couple of weeks prior to the Allied invasion of Normandy, Fazekas' P-47 crashed in German-occupied territory.
"So there was no effort by the Germans to recover or exhume his remains or anything," Wubben said. "Things were thrown into the crater caused by the crash - roofing shingles, dirt, animal carcasses and it burned for a few days."
The third case the UW team was involved in was that of 2nd Lt. Walter Stone, 24, of Andalusia, Ala.
He, like Fazekas, was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot.
While the mission of Fazekas' fighter squadron was a low level ground attack of German targets such as trains and convoys, the mission of Stone's P-47 squadron, assigned to the U.S. Army's Eighth Air Force, was escorting American heavy bombers on their daylight raids to bomb German industrial and military targets.
Stone was shot down in October 1943, roughly seven months before Fazekas.
"He (Stone) never returned from a mission," Wubben said. "We still don't know exactly what caused him to crash, whether he was shot down by fighters or shot down by flak. There were weather issues that day as well."
Whatever the case, Stone's Thunderbolt crashed into a wooded area of northern France.
Wubben said there were witnesses to that crash and, as was the case in the years immediately after the war, grave registration personnel combed the area, "to the best of their ability to at least find where people had crashed."
"They didn't do excavations or anything like the way we're doing them now," he said, adding there had been a Department of Defense (DoD) team tasked with the Stone case.
"They were in the wrong spot," Wubben said.
A French team got the DoD team in the right area, but time had run out for that particular team.
The UW team on the Stone case, which that year included Wubben, Tiedeman, Zinnen and a few others, was called in and "we ended up batting cleanup for them and going in to finish the case for them."
"A lot of it does become a team effort," Wubben said of the partnership between the UW group and the DPAA. "It's not always us doing a single case like the Fazekas case."
He said the Stone case was finished up during the summer of 2018.
Stone's remains were eventually returned to the United States and buried in his hometown in May 2019.
What it means
Tiedeman, a senior at the UW-Madison pursuing his certificate in archeology, has been with the team two years. He is also a veteran of four years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps including a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan.
At the time of his discharged, he was "on the fence" about getting out of the Marine Corps, he said.
"The ISIS fight kicked off in 2014 and 2015 when I was looking to get out," Tiedeman said. "I still had buddies who were in, but I chose to get out; it didn't look at the time like we were going to commit a lot of troops to Iraq or Syria. It seemed like it was mostly special operations and advise and assist situations."
Tiedeman said what he does with the MIA project is important to him for a couple reasons. For one, he had a grandfather who also served in the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1946, serving during the war in the Pacific theater of operations.
He said his other grandfather's barber, Phil Parish, was a survivor of Japanese prison camps after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines in early 1942.
"He survived the Bataan death march, two or three years of internment in prison camps and Japanese 'hell ships,'" Tiedeman said. "As a veteran and descendant of someone else who served in the military, this is a way for me to give back to my country."
He said another piece of it as a former service member who served in a combat zone is if anything happened to him there, he'd want his parents to have something, to know what happened to him.
"When I think of these service members, there might be members of their families aware of their service and sacrifice," Tiedeman said. "I think, as a country, we owe it to them to get them as much closure as we can."
Zinnen, a 2019 UW-Madison graduate and also a member of the UW MIA team for the past two years, said it's very meaningful to be part of fulfilling an obligation.
"A duty we have to honor, remember and bring them home to their families," she said. "It's turning back the clock and figuring out what happened."
Zinnen said she's spent a lot of time interviewing military personnel and family members.
"To be able to help even one family is the best thing we could do with our time," she said. "Working with these people every day, I couldn't imagine working with better people to do it."
Wubben said he and his family were able to attend the service for Frank Fazekas at Arlington National Cemetery, a memory he said he'll take to his grave.
There was one other special memory for Wubben related to the excavation of the Fazekas crash site.
The son of 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas was six months old at the time of his father's loss in the sky over France in May 1944.
A resident of the French village who then was 12 years old and witnessed the crash of Fazekas' Thunderbolt and Frank Fazekas, Jr. were both there during the summer of 2016 as the crash site was being excavated.
"The witness and the son got to meet each other," Wubben said. "It's probably one of the most special memories I will have for my entire life."
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