Echoes of War
A Tale of Loss and Mutual Healing
World War II did not end in 1945 – at least not for the Dwyer family of Hastings, Nebraska, U.S.A. Their son Stanley, the second-born, was missing in action after his B17 bomber crashed on a hillside in Lower Austria. And now sixty years later, with the support of a recovery team from the US military Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the eye witness accounts of local residents, his family has been able to piece together the story of what happened to 1st Lt. Stanley N. Dwyer on that May morning in 1944, and gain a peace of mind that has long eluded them.
When the U.S. government send Harold Dwyer, Stanley’s younger brother, an missing aircrew report in the early 1990s he could not put together the pieces of the puzzle given to him. The missing aircrew report only stated that his elder brother had disappeared at 11:45, on May 10th, 1944, 2 km southwest from a place called Vostenhof, in Lower Austria.
Peace of mind had also eluded Inge Dörr, a neighbour, who, in another B17 bombing raid on the other side of Austria, had watched her 6-year-old brother blown to pieces before her eyes, a horror she had since relived a thousand times. But the cruelties of war compound: A short time later, Dörr’s young mother at the time, heartbroken and distraught, took her own life.
When a series of coincidences brought the American family’s questions to Inge Dörr’s attention, she struggled with a tangle of mixed emotions. All these events were unbearably painful to her. Still, she believed in the Christian ideal of "love thy neighbor": If there was ever a situation where that standard applied, it was here. She decided to help.
The Dwyer family’s search really began back in 1998, when a series of coincidences led his brother Harold Dwyer and his niece Kay Hughes, to clues about what might have happened to Stanley back in 1944.
When Hughes' nephew planned a backpacking trip around Europe that year, her curiosity was aroused and she asked him to try to find the town where Stanley Dwyer’s plane had crashed. That didn’t happen, but an unexpected visit from a relative whom she had not seen in 12 years added a whole new dimension to their search. He told Hughes that a friend’s godparents lived near Wiener Neustadt.
The godparents were Inge and Udo Dörr, who then shared what they knew about the crash of the B-17 bomber and brought in Augustin Stranz, the town’s historian.
The search for Stanley picked up momentum in 1999 when Hughes found a trunk containing Stanley Dwyer’s things that survived a fire in her grandparents’ home. The trunk contained 300 letters that he had written while he was in the merchant marine and during his service in the army, golf balls, graduation invitations, among other things.
"So now we not only wanted to know what happened on May 10th 1944 – to know what happened to Stanley – but then you open this trunk and there was the life of this person," she said, still amazed that these memorabilia existed at all.
The trunk had opened up a doorway to the past, and Hughes realised she wouldn’t be able to close it anymore.
"Something gets a hold of you, and you can’t just let it go," she said. "You don’t want to close it back up and forget about it; you want to know more about it, about his life."
Letter after letter, the words turned Stanley into a real person rather than a name of a vanished relative who, Harold said, "was not really spoken about."
Hughes' lost uncle had liked playing golf and had planned to be a journalist, with a degree in broadcast journalism from Kansas State University, still a very new field at the time. He had joined the merchant marines after college, because he thought it would give him the experience of the world he needed to become a good radio announcer. He had joined the army on Dec. 9th, 1941, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 24.
"Combat is interesting. It holds the excitement of a college football game multiplied to world-wide scope," wrote Stanley in an April, 1944 letter to his college professor Harry B. Summers. "Returns from victory are tangible and real, and accomplishment gives one an unequalled sense of satisfaction. But the cost is great, and it will take a lifetime to dissolve the mental, physical, spiritual and financial mortgage."
It was Dwyer’s family who felt the mortgage of war just a month later, when the letter was forwarded to Stanley’s parents after he disappeared. Summers tried to comfort them. "Men in the Air Force have been reported missing and have later been reported as prisoners," he wrote. "I think, as you do, that the chances are at least 50-50 that we’ll have better news some day."
When Stanley did not reappear after a year, he was declared officially dead, according to military rules. "So [our parents] held on to that little hope for a year, but then it never materialised," said Harold Dwyer. "It was tough on them, basically my mother. My dad was a military man, so he knew the consequences of battle."
More than 78,000 Americans who fought in various wars are still not accounted for. In Oct. 2003, JPAC was set up, merging the 30-year-old U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii with an 11-year-old Joint Task Force-Full Accounting unit. The 18 JPAC teams are made up of members of all the four branches of the US forces, with a $52 million annual budget and the assignment to search for, recover, identify and bring home the remains of members of the US forces reported dead or missing in action on foreign soil.
In all, JPAC deploys about 70 to 80 missions a year across the world, and so far, it has recovered about 1,300 bodies. According to JPAC’s website, another 35,000 are deemed recoverable.
JPAC embarked on the search for Stanley Dwyer in 2005 with a research and reconnaissance mission to the area. The teams consist of about four to nine members, a mix from the four branches of the US Forces, and any civilian specialists needed, including a lead anthropologist.
The first excavation of the B17 site at Vostenhof took place the following year in 2006 and lasted 45 days. Last year, the search turned up a dime with the date 1916 on it, Stanley Dwyer’s birth year, which the family is quite sure was a good luck piece the pilot had carried in his picket.
This year, the team hoped to find other coins or hardware that would help tighten the link, and most of all, any human remains. They had taken a DNA sample from Harold Dwyer with which they hoped to confirm the identity of any bone or other body part they uncovered.
Andrew Tyrell, the forensic anthropologist of the team, said that after two missions, they have a pretty good idea of what happened in the two months after the crash, but it is harder to know what happened in the last 61 years.
On May 10th, the ten-man crew of the B-17 took off from Italy for a bombing mission over Wiener Neustadt, the site of an airplane factory. There was no pressurised cabin in a B17, so the pilot and crew would have had to wear very warm clothing to stand the cold at 11,000 feet.
The weather was against them; they were flying into a head wind that slowed them down, so the anti aircraft guns had a big advantage. Shortly after dropping its first load, the plane was hit by a flak grenade and part of the plane caught on fire, according to the Missing Air Crew report.
"They tried to send up a flare, but it kicked back and set off other flares," Tyrell said, fueling the blaze and making the cabin space intolerable. As the plane lost altitude and one of the wings was engulfed in flames, eight of the crew parachuted out. Five survived the jump and were taken prisoners of war, while the other three died during or soon after landing. The POWs were released in 1945.
Augustin Stranz had left school with his classmates and was on his way to take cover in the cellar when he "looked back and saw the plane over the top of the church, headed for the Burg Festung (Burg Vostenhof).
"Then it started climbing again," Stranz said. "I heard a motor sputter. And I knew it was going to crash."
The chances of recovering the remains of missing airmen are never high. Crashes usually involve fires and explosions that leave little behind.
"Here, because of the burning on the wings, the bombs cocked off," anthropologist Tyrrell said. "There was an enormous explosion, so the wreckage was spread over a wide area." The Germans had special units to scavenge the sites of air crashes for reusable parts and materials. And over the years, hikers have also picked over the site, finding bullets and casings whose origin is undeniable and were taken as souvenirs.
"Each gun had several hundred rounds so there should have been over a thousand bullets," said Tyrrell. But we have found only 30." Climate and weather conditions also play a role in the loss of recoverable material. After six decades in the sandy soil of the pine forested hillside, most of the evidence of what happened has been washed away.
But memories survive. Vienna residents Peter and Judann Weichselbraun, an Austrian-American couple working under contract for the U.S. Embassy, have served as liaisons to the community for the JPAC team, interpreting for visitors, contacting witnesses and translating interviews, on this second summer of excavation at the site.
"As far as we have reconstructed," the plane "flew a big left hand circle and revved the engines one more time to avoid hitting the roof of the last farmhouse," said Peter Weichselbraun, summarising the witnesses’ accounts of the plane crash, "or perhaps realizing that he was too low for the meadow where he might have thought he could land."
When the plane hit the ground, it is believed at least one of the bombs it was carrying went off and the blast scattered pieces in a wide area, while two of the men who jumped where found dead near the crash site.
All that is left today is a crater in the middle of a pine tree forest, and underneath layers of leaves and dirt, the recovery team has found small pieces of the plane which are carefully screened with the hope of finding anything from the lost men. The teams correlate the evidence, reconstructing events, hoping to find remains near the place where the MIA’s spent their last moments alive.
The Vöstenhof excavation ended in August. This year’s efforts found remains of clothing, buttons, snaps, a rim of a glove, a piece of a shoe-sole. No human remains were found. What is left from the search for Stanley is a new friendship between the Dwyer/Hughes family and the Dörrs.
Inge Dörr stayed in contact with Kay Hughes and met the Dwyers in person in 2006, during the first JPAC excavation.
"From the first moment, when I saw the family standing at the hotel lobby, my heart opened up. You could feel the empathy flowing from both sides," said Dörr. "They weren’t strangers to us, not even people whose brother had done something bad to me and my family. There was nothing there to divide us, only so much more that bound us together."
Last year, a memorial stone was placed at the site, with a commemoration ceremony of blessing by a catholic priest, and with local residents and eyewitnesses, last year’s JPAC team, and the members of the Dwyer-Hughes and Dörr families.
Inge Dörr had been nine years old when her little brother was killed. Now at last, 63 years later, in getting to know the Dwyers she has felt the weight of her suffering lifted.
Her voice glowing with warmth, as she described the rush of relief she felt when she embraced Harold Dwyer, and a surge of happiness she had forgotten existed.
"Stanley was killed by German soldiers, just like my brother died at the hand of American soldiers," said Dörr. "We are two families who have met with the same destiny."