Since the United States entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, countless American soldiers have gone missing in action during wars and conflicts. Many of these soldiers were never found and their families didn’t receive the closure they deserved.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Missing In Action Recovery and Identification Project is working to change that one soldier at a time.
Three members of this group — Dr. Ryan Wubben, clinical associate professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, UW Biotechnology Center Associate Director Charles Konsitzke, and forensic archaeologist Dr. Leslie Eisenberg — will be presenting as part of the EAA Aviation Museum’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series on Thursday, January 18.
Ryan, Charles, and Leslie will be discussing the group’s successful recovery of the remains of Lt. Frank Fazekas, a WWII P-47 Thunderbolt pilot who was shot down over northern France in late May of 1944.
In conjunction with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), an office in the U.S. Department of Defense, the group spent time during the summers of 2016 and 2017 excavating the reported crash site in France, eventually unearthing the downed P-47. When they were able to match the serial numbers of recovered machine guns to those of the missing P-47, they knew they had the right airplane.
“We found the beginnings of the wreckage and then the key factor we found was … six of the M2 machine guns, which is important because the machine guns actually have individual serial numbers on them,” Ryan, EAA Lifetime 562951, explained. “During WWII, when an aircraft failed to return from a mission, a report was filled out called a Missing Aircrew Report, which basically gave the details of what happened from eyewitnesses, people in his squadron who may have witnessed the aircraft going down but more importantly for us, they recorded the serial numbers of the engine, the airframe, and the machine guns. That became important because the serial numbers matched. That was kind of the ‘eureka’ moment that we were on the right case and had the right aircraft.”
While successfully recovering and identifying Fazekas’ remains was rewarding in itself, Ryan noted that it became much more personal when Fazekas’ son, also named Frank, visited the crash site and developed a relationship with members of the team helping to clear up the mystery of his father’s death.
“The cool thing about the first season in 2016 is that we actually had the son of the pilot out there with us for part of the time,” Ryan said. “Frank, the son, was also an Air Force pilot himself. He flew C-130s in Vietnam and also flew KC-135s. He had a 20-year Air Force career himself as a pilot. To have him come out there was very special and it kind of brought everything home to why we were doing this.
“He actually did not know that his father was technically listed as missing. He was under the impression for a long time that his father had been recovered and been buried in France. It was only in recent years that he had come to the understanding that his father was actually listed as missing. For him to be able to go out to the site and see us doing this excavation and doing the work to clear up this mystery as to what had happened and also to recover his remains was deeply impactful for him.”
Although Ryan studied anthropology and archaeology as an undergraduate student in college, he’s spent his professional life as a medical doctor and therefore this project was a new experience for him. Safe to say, he’s happy he got involved.
“I’ve not done anything like this before, but it has been immensely satisfying,” Ryan said. “We’re all essentially volunteers and for us, it’s our ability to give a little something back. From that standpoint, it has been immensely satisfying on our part. But we’ve also developed a relationship with Frank the son, who is an amazing individual himself. … In the end it was a success. Success in this case will be measured by the fact that Lt. Fazekas will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in March. That is the culmination of all this work, the funeral at Arlington that will be coming up.”
The UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project’s partnership with DPAA was a trial run and with its success, DPAA has opened up opportunities like this to other universities. Ryan doesn’t know yet what the group’s next project will be but knows one will be coming.
“DPAA, based on our success in the summer of 2016, then opened up projects with other universities,” Ryan said. “This past summer, the University of Maryland, East Carolina University, the University of New Orleans were all in the field working on similar projects. The word is they’ll be expanding that even further come the summer of 2018. For 2018, we don’t quite know what case we might get. We are in active discussions with DPAA right now to determine what cases might be there for us to work on this coming summer.”