Loss, learning and love: A Father’s Day story

UPDATE: WCCO TV INTERVIEW WITH GRETCHEN AND HANS WRONKA 12-6-16:  http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2016/12/06/grandson-finds-wwii-airmans-body/

Family is one of nature’s masterpieces. ~ George Santayana

It’s just that families create infinite variations on a theme. For many, Father’s Day is a time of loving, sharing, sleeping in, shopping, more shopping and otherwise giving thanks and tribute to great fathers, grandfathers, ancestors as far as family stories live in memory.

For families, especially young children, Father’s Day can be less than idyllic.  Grown-ups who stretch their hearts and arms to fill in for absent dads deserve to share the largesse of the season!

Which brings me to a happy story of a happy family that is celebrating this Father’s Day is a very special way.

My dear friend, now a grandma herself, never knew her father. She has a picture of a young man holding an infant in his arms…  The Records of the Army Air Forces Record Group 18 testify to the fact that her father, whose name was Loren, died when his plane went down on a family farm near Bologna, Italy on April 21,1945, the day that Bologna was liberated.  She was born in January of the previous year.  Her father found out by letter after he was sent overseas that her mother was expecting a second child, a son born after her husband’s death.

And so the decades passed. My friend and her brother had a wonderful mother who reared two generous and engaged contributors to society; each of them reared children whose only knowledge of their grandfather rested on stories their grandmother had shared before she died. As grandchildren came along they heard the third-hand stories of their grandfather’s sacrifice.

Meanwhile, near the site of the crash, the narrative lived on. Locals remembered and passed on stories; Italian World War II buffs and amateur archeologists who wanted to learn the stories poured through the voluminous records. Everyone in the area knew a plane had been shot down at the very end of the war. The intrepid Italians persisted until they were able to identify the name of the downed pilot whose plane had crashed near their village.

Enter the digital age: The Italians googled the name of the man who had died. What they found online were messages my friend and her son had posted on a P-47 website; they learned that family members now living in Minnesota had posted messages seeking information about other pilots who might have known their father and grandfather.

Persistent and ethical researchers that they were, the Italians contacted my friend and her family. The Italians respectfully shared their plans, still pending, to excavate the site.  Though the remains of Loren had long since been buried in the American Military Cemetery outside Florence, the locals still sought for closure. The American family agreed to the Italians’ proposal.

The search continued as the Italian contact led one of the grandsons to delve more deeply into his grandfather’s story. He reviewed extensive official records of Loren’s death; he painstakingly compared official records with correspondence his grandmother had received about her husband’s death, messages from the military, from his squadron chaplain, and from some of his buddies with the more extensive official records.

Now fully engaged in the family’s quest, my friend and intrigued family members searched the records of the National Archives.  They checked the “Green Books” found on the website for the U.S. Army Center of Military History.  They plumbed the depths of documents archived by the Army Air Force Units now in the custody of the Air Force Historical Research.  Fortunately, they were guided through the voluminous files by staff of the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

An unexpected and remarkable turn of events is that the Americans got to know the Italians who would help them fill in the major gaps in their knowledge of their father and grandfather’s story. Scores of letters, emails and phone calls ensued. One grandson visited Bologna where he was warmly welcomed by the families who live near the site. He learned how they had broken bureaucratic barriers to get the proper permits for the excavation and rustled up the heavy equipment necessary to go so deep.

The saga continued as a long-distance friendship flourished between my friend’s family and their new long-distance friends in Italy. Loren’s grandson has chronicled the details of this family epic – the meticulous research, bureaucratic hurdles and help, countless emails, photos, phone calls, travel, and most of all, a growing transnational friendship among individuals and families who shared a common tragedy.

This year my friend and her family will spend Father’s Day packing their bags for a grand pilgrimage to the site of their forebear’s death.  The entourage includes my friend and her younger brother, four grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Stateside preparations involve perusing and transcribing the journals, the poems, the photos and other reflections of a man that none of these people ever knew. Though this is to be expected, what have come as a surprise to the American family are the preparations taking place in Italy where local elders have begun to share stories prompted by the impending visit. Locals tell my friend that there is a palpable surge of local interest in the excavation of the remains of the young American pilot.

The elders who still live in the Bologna region were teenagers or younger during the turbulent wartime years; they bear the scars of German occupation and the horrific effects of American bombings on their villages and fields. After all these years, they are pausing to relive, remember and reflect on their wartime experiences.

The growing relationship transcends distance and decades. As one Bologna local assured my friend, “I’m very happy for you and your family. Since a long time we call Loren ‘the Grandfather’!”

Buona Festa del Papà!!!


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