“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

WWII Hero, MIA for 70 Years, Comes Home

Special Introduction: I’ve shared a several posts over the past couple of years about the discovery of my father’s WWII P-51 fighter plane high atop a Tyrolean glacier. That story began 70 years ago in Feb 1945; dad bailed out, succeeded in descending the mountain, was cared for by some villagers in the valley below, and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. His story reached a resolution of sorts this past summer when my sister and I visited the valley, got a view of the crash site and met with villagers who remember dad.

A parallel story about dad’s first cousin Peyton Mathis has been developing over those same 70 years. His story began a few months before dad’s plane went down, and now comes to its resolution this week. My first cousin Emory Kimbrough has done the research and made the contacts with the people involved in this story. Here it is:

 

By guest writer, Emory Kimbrough

 

World War II pilot, Major Peyton Spottswood Mathis, Jr., USAAF, will be returned home to Montgomery, Alabama, after seventy years as MIA on Guadalcanal. On the morning of January 1, 2015, the plane carrying Mathis’ remains will land in Birmingham, where a special escort will release the casket in a ceremonial transfer to the family and funeral director. An escorted motorcade to Greenwood cemetery in Montgomery will follow the transfer.

 

Mathis will be laid to rest next to his father and near his mother and step-mother in a formal military burial ceremony at 2 p.m., January 3, 2015, at Greenwood cemetery. 3-Mathis Portrait 1

 

 

As commanding officer of the 44th Fighter Squadron, Mathis was returning with his squadron on June 5, 1944, to Kukum Field on Guadalcanal, after a bombing mission on Japanese facilities was recalled. Mathis suffered an engine failure in his P-38J. After jettisoning his two 500-pound bomb clusters into the sea, he instructed his squadron to land ahead of him.

1-MathisGuadalcanalMathis on Guadalcanal

Mathis flew over the airfield and turned into a landing pattern. For unknown reasons he aborted his final turn and flew south. He was last seen from the airfield disappearing behind hills. Another pilot flying an A-24 saw Mathis’ fighter flip on its back and crash into a ravine. The squadron’s maintenance and engineering officer led a search party in a difficult four to five hour push through the jungle to reach the crash site. They found the aircraft nose-down in a swampy creek with only the tail booms exposed. Pvt. G. H. Hanna swam down six to eight feet to reach the submerged cockpit, but was unable to free Mathis. Exhausted and lacking tools, the search party returned to the airfield.

On February 10, 1949, a Graves Registration company attempted to locate and recover the remains, but the crash site could not be found. The P-38 had likely settled into the swamp, and the crash site was lost to history.

The mystery remained for seven decades until a farmer clearing land for planting saw some metal sticking up out of a swamp. The farmer, Eddy Aku, contacted Anders Markwarth, an Australian resident of Guadalcanal known for recovering military artifacts. Eddy led Markwarth to the swamp at night to keep the site secret from anyone who might harvest the metal without permission or respect for the pilot’s remains.

Aku and his cousin found remains at the site, and within days, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) arrived, beginning a year-long procedure to definitively identify the remains found in and near the cockpit. With the aid of local Solomon Islanders, JPAC constructed sandbag dams to pump out water for investigation and recovery. The remains were transferred to Hawaii. Evidence from forensic anthropology and military records would be investigated, along with DNA testing against a sample from a relative of Mathis’ mother, Laura Davis Mathis.

                                                       The JPAC team working at Maj. Peyton Mathis’ crash site on Guadalcanal

3-JPAC -Dam and Pump Efforts2-JPAC Work

Mathis had no children, but Peyton Mathis III, of Montgomery, whose father was Mathis’ half-brother, is named in his honor. He has been searching for over a decade for more substantial information about the war hero he was named for. Mathis had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Silver Star in North Africa before his tour in the Pacific.

Personnel who helped in the planning for Mathis’ return to Alabama include Karen Johnson with Mortuary Affairs at Fr. Knox, KY, and Major Robert Tindall, Casualty Assistance Officer, Ft. Benning, GA. According to Mathis III, the JPAC team was more thorough than he could have anticipated, explaining why the process took a year to complete.

“It is now quite clear why the I.D process and notification of the family is such a lengthy process. They are so thorough and meticulous that it is almost miraculous that we got our results as quickly as we did. We were given a bound report that documents all of the steps in the discovery and identification process and chronicles the events that started on the day of the crash, June 5, 1944 through basically the present, and Karen literally went through it page by page for our benefit,” said Mathis.

JPAC’s mission is to bring America’s fallen soldiers home, no matter the difficulty or cost. Their teams may go to the jungles of Vietnam and Laos, the deserts of North Africa, Europe, and Korea. These recovery missions sometimes require complex diplomacy, are often difficult, and sometimes dangerous.

Anderson Cooper recently aired a piece on 60 Minutes dealing with a WWII aircraft’s crash site and the pilot’s remains, as well as featuring the group that researches such sites.

 

                                        JPAC recovery missions sometimes require complex diplomacy, are often difficult, and sometimes dangerous.

                                                                                         4-JPAC Team  1-JPAC Work D

The New Year will begin the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, and the year will bring numerous memories, events, memorials, stories, and finally, celebrations. Unhappily, at the same time, the United States is losing its WWII veterans at a high rate. Estimates put the number at 1,000 a day. Some 16 million Americans from all walks of life served in the war to bring an end to the scourge of Hitler’s and Japan’s oppressive forces worldwide.

 

Photos provided by Emory Kimbrough (who restored the oldest pictures), Anders Markwarth, and the JPAC team.

 

 

Riding the AlCan to Grow Up in Anchorage


GUA1_Final-cropped
GrowingUpAnchorage.com is not a blog, but a group venture dedicated to preserving authentic
stories of life in Anchorage during the 1940s through the 1980s.  These are not the narratives
of the luminous historical figures in Alaska’s history; rather they are the memories of everyday
people who lived under rather extraordinary conditions.

Growing Up Anchorage invited me to contribute stories to this fun blog, and I was honored and pleased to join in. The twenty-three contributing writers represent locations and states from Florida to Moose Pass, Alaska; several are descendants of Athabascan Native Americans in Alaska; their memories and experiences are as varied as your imagination can make up.

My first post tells the story of how I learned that my father, a career officer in the U.S. Air Force, got orders to take us to Alaska, a place I had never located on a map. Simply getting there was an adventure of a lifetime: driving for six weeks from Alabama across this country, upward to Anchorage on the 1,700-mile AlCan Highway as it was in 1958 – unpaved, pot-holed, fire-smoke infested, and gorgeous.

If you look really, really close, you can see the royal            
blue Packard camouflaged by AlCan dust (below).             
PackardonAlCan-ed6AlCan-edWhen we got here, we still had a long trip ahead                                                                 

Please join us at this magical location.








The Meaning of Crashite Hunting: Real World War II Legends

In the second e-mail I got from Roland Domanig two years ago, September 9, 2012 – after my terse reply to the first one asking that he verify his identity, he wrote:

I assure that all is OK with me. One

Identity you see on my mentor’s homepage Keith Bullock

http://www.bullock.at/

. . . .

For third:

In short sentences: but more to follow

We visited your father’s crashite.

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The first photo Roland sent of the location of dad’s P-51 crash site on Übeltal Glacier

 

I looked up, turned my head to the window, and said, “What the hell is a crashite?” The e-mail continued:

 

We/I assume you are his daughter, as you delivered all info in your blog “Spittin Grits”, we had either [earlier?]. So there was 100% correspondence.

Could Lt. John T. Cravey be STILL WITH US? Was our question on tour when

Talking about this pilot.

Again I looked up and said, “Does he mean ‘crash site’? That’s impossible.”

 

Yet here we were. Here to see dad’s crash site, but driving back to Innsbruck, wasting a day, to pick up the infernal Hertz car. I used the time to ask questions.

 

“Roland, tell me again what motivated you to get so involved in finding and researching crash sites?” I was madly writing in my journal as we drove.

 

Roland laughed. I had asked this questions several times over the past two years of being in constant communication. It was clear that he spent a lot of time and energy (and probably money) on this “hobby.” A toll booth was coming up. He kept his eyes on the road. While talking and asking questions, I tried to look at the surroundings as we drove the Brenner Pass on a sunny day. A tunnel was coming up.

 

“For our or all ancestors we do this research as hobby. And we are happy if we find interested living -- and loving -- people to talk with them about this crash,” explained Roland. “Sometime we find crash survivor.”

 

I turned back to the scenery. There’s no way to get a clean sense of going through this pass, I thought to myself. Autobahn traffic. Speeds. Toll booths and 18-wheelers, four lanes on both the north- and south-bound sides. It’s about all your eyes can send to your brain.

 

“How did you get started?” I asked.

 

Then I thought to myself, you’re crossing over the Alps, dummy. Pay attention. My mind flashed with the memory of driving downward out of Glacier National Park in 1958 on our reassignment trip to Alaska. Winding downward at such a steep angle scared me. Living in Alaska for three years cured that. This brain flash directed me to dad, who was driving that downward spiral Glacier road: What would he think of this trip to see his crash site? How would he feel? How would he have felt when first getting the news it had been found? By Anton Volgger, of all people?  (Anton’s connection with dad’s story will come later.)

 

Anton (l) and a colleague at the debris field on of dad’s P-51 on Übeltal Glacier

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“There,” said Roland, bringing me back to the Pass. “Mountain of dolomite. That is.” My sister Susan and I had wanted to visit The Dolomites, wherever exactly they are.

 

Off to the right, as if iced with white glitter-glue, the entire mountain glistened in the sun. What a sight, I thought. I guessed that it was some kind of marble or mineral. Suddenly this morning’s vision of Zuckerhutl in the unimpeded sunshine raced through my mind. I’ve got to practice remembering that sight, I thought.

 

Now I saw that there were many mountains of dolomite, all glistening, but it must be different from The Dolomites dad and mom talked about, and how beautiful they were. Yes, they’re different, I discovered. The Dolomites are located south of Roland’s hometown of Lienz, Austria, into Italy toward Bolzano.

 

Roland broke the reverie. “You see, interest happened when my aunt once told me about her experience with a going down bomber aiming at her house and almost making a victim of that crash. That bomber crashed near my town Lienz,” he explained. “That was 1999. I started research then after talking to mentor Keith Bullock. Anton knows about six crash sites; I do about 20.”

We were nearing Innsbruck. We were to meet Jakob Mayer, whom we had met at the Innsbruck train station. Jakob is, with Roland, in the inner circle of the crash site archaeologists, researchers, and historians who mentored under Keith Bullock.

 

After coffee, again at the Europa Hotel and after I picked up the car, we drove west to the outskirts of town to visit the crash site of B-17 “Priority Gal.” Jakob had been the moving force behind establishing a bronze plaque at the site in honor of the Flying Fortress’s pilot. The site was located on a slope of the mountain where events at the Innsbruck 2002 Winter Olympics were held. Jakob gave me a copy of the astonishing 2006 story published in a New Jersey newspaper.

 

Below: Jakob Mayer and myself at the Priority Gal crashsite

clip_image006 clip_image008

 

This B-17 Flying Fortress had taken flak over Munich. Two engines (out of only four) were on fire. Pilot Lt. Henry Supchak decided to aim for Switzerland rather than go down in Nazi territory. Over Innsbruck, still a long way from Switzerland, the plane took more flak. The crew couldn’t put out the fire in one engine, and flames were aiming for a fuel tank. Supchak ordered everyone to bail. Right then! The Priority Gal went into a nose dive. Centrifugal force pinned him down, keeping him from bailing. Then a sudden updraft righted the plane momentarily. He looked out and saw that Priority Gal was aimed directly at the town. In a split second he decided to trim the plane to far left, then jump. Priority Gal crashed on the outskirts, thereby saving the town and inhabitants, but wounding a small boy and his aunt as it crashed.

 

Supchak’s quick decision had also saved his crew members, but their ordeal was not over. They all spent the remainder of the war in two Nazi POW camps, including dad’s at Moosburg near Munich, where they and 80,000 other POWs would be liberated by George Patton’s troops April 29, 1945.

 

The story of the pilot of Priority Gal was legend in Innsbruck. His story didn’t end there either, thanks to Jakob Mayer.

 

At last, during the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s, locked gates opened wide on the Internet. Quickly evolving technology sent unimaginable quantities of data to flow to the World Wide Web, allowing the internet to begin doing what it does best: opening new knowledge to the World. For so many researchers like Roland and Jakob and for many families like Henry Supchak’s, that accumulation of information could bring into the light some unknown corners and unanswered questions of World War II. Some stories would bring families and friends sadness, but closure; for others, joy at finally learning the real events and real roles played by their loved one, still living or dead, who helped bring an end to Hitler’s unspeakable ideas and actions.

 

Legends could become real.

 

Mayer was scouring the Internet about 2002, looking for the pilot of Priority Gal. About the same time across the Atlantic in New Jersey, Supchak’s daughter, Liz S. Hoban, had begun research on her father. Touchdown. Hoban and Mayer found each other in 2006.

 

At age 90, Supchak welcomed Jakob Mayer into his home in New Jersey and learned of the plaque and his legendary status. He reportedly said to Mayer, “You’ve added a new dimension to my life. Your communication with me has done more for me than you know.”

 

A year later Supchak traveled to Innsbruck to rededicate the plaque with his name on it. At that time he learned the rest of the story of the wounded little boy, Ander Haas: He grew up to be a successful hotelier, and he erected a plaque in Supchak’s honor at the foot of his hotel near the crash site.

 

clip_image010

Priority Gal, an American Flying Fortress, on the outskirts of Innsbruck

 

 

After returning home to New Jersey, Supchak, with his daughter Elizabeth Hoban, wrote a book, “The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot, and a World at War” available on line and in public libraries.

 

Roland had met Jakob in 2002 after reading in a news account about his research of a crash site; then he guided Jakob to mentor and researcher Keith Bullock. Jakob already knew about Anton Volgger and his trip to the crash site of dad’s P-51 Mustang in 1995, after which documents were lost for about six years. After Jakob introduced Roland to Anton; together they went to dad’s crash site on Übeltal Glacier. Then it took six or eight more years of researching the internet to find me at Spittin’ Grits.

 

Much earlier, in 1965 or so, an Italian man heard rumors of a crash site where he was living; then he heard a second rumor about a “war tragedy” having occurred as well. These rumors stuck in the “item of interest” area of his brain for more than thirty years. Then in 1999 he, Giorgio Pietrobon, found a record of the disaster in a Parish book. His “activity as an aeronautical researcher” had begun, he says in his book, “B-24 Sandman.”

 

Sandman 

 

Next: The story of the B-24 Sandman, one of the most iconic USAAF planes in World War II. See more images here.

 

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