Final Flight
Family keeps the memory of World War II pilot John Mangas alive while solving 63-year-old mystery
by Christina Lent  05/25/06

Jaime Valdez / The Times
Gerry Vander Zanden sits with her nephew Gary Smith as he shares what he has learned about Lt. John Mangas’ last flight.

A funeral service was never held for Lt. John H. Mangas.

The final resting place of the decorated World War II fighter pilot remains a mystery more than 63 years after his Lockheed P38 Lighting was shot down by enemy fire on Jan. 8, 1943, while protecting a 10-man B17 crew on the third day of the Battle of Lae Harbor.

The 22-year-old Portland native was listed as missing in action, and his family was left hoping and waiting for a resolution.

“There was never a real obituary,” said Gary Smith, Mangas’ nephew. “There was no finish line to cross for John Mangas.  “His story was never told, until now.”

Mangas’ contribution and sacrifice will be honored Monday with a special tribute during the Beaverton American Legion Post 124’s annual Memorial Day Program. 

Lee Cundiff was so moved by Mangas’ story that he arranged for Bob Burton and Lt. Col. Jeff Wright to join him in performing a three-Stearman fly-by in the Missing Man Formation.  “I’m honored to be able to make this flight for John and his family,” Cundiff said. “The guys who I’m flying with feel the same.  “This is a big tribute to a local guy who never came back.”

Among the family, friends and old neighbors planning to attend the Beaverton program is Gerry Vander Zanden, Mangas’ older sister.  “I think it’s marvelous that they are recognizing him,” Vander Zanden said. “To have people know what he did in those days, I think that is wonderful.  “It means lots to me.”

Smith, who never had the chance to meet his brave uncle, agreed.  “The fly-by will only take a moment, but it’s a moment for the world to know that Uncle John lived, and it was great,” Smith said. “Because of his sacrifice, men lived that otherwise would have died.”

A brave heart
John Mangas, who was a licensed pilot at the time, enlisted as an air cadet one month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  His family supported the decision, knowing that flying was the passion of his life.  “Oh, naturally I was proud, I thought that was a bit of all right,” Vander Zanden said.  She remembers her younger brother as a carefree guy whose “eyes were always smiling.”  “He was a fun loving person — always feeling jolly and never out of sorts,” she said. “John had bravery in his heart.”

Mangas was one of 50 handpicked P38 fighter pilots selected to strengthen the Fifth Air Force in the defense of Australia. He was assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron and located in the most-forward position as a pursuit-interceptor, 14 miles north of Port Moresby, New Guinea.

“I didn’t know much about his life in the service,” Vander Zanden admitted.  She does remember receiving the devastating news that her brother was missing.  “I remember them coming to talk to my dad,” she recalled. “They pointed out that it was common to have people missing.”

Vander Zanden was a schoolteacher at the time and couldn’t believe that her vibrant brother was gone.  “I was very fond of John and didn’t know how I would get along without him,” she said. “In a situation like this what can you do? You accept and move on. In those days you never expected to get much information from the government.”
The news also came as a blow to their father, George Mangas.  “It broke his father’s heart to lose his son, and he died shortly thereafter without any resolution,” Smith said. “He died still hoping and still waiting.”

That was not uncommon for families with loved ones listed as MIA, he added.  “Families were left holding out hope for a long time,” Smith said. “They expected their missing boys to come walking through the door at any time. In this case it did not happen.”

‘They still grieve’
For decades, Mangas’ story remained a big question mark for the family.  His parents and three of his sisters died before finding out what happened to him on his last flight.  “All I knew was my Uncle Johnny was a war hero shot down in the South Pacific,” Smith said.

Five months ago Smith began a search for information about his uncle.  “It was an odd accident,” he explained. “I had a buddy that decided to take a vacation to Australia and that got me thinking about this old wooden box in my family that had love letters that my mom wrote to my father in the war.  “I knew I had to go to the wood box. It was like it was calling me.”  Smith found the box in an attic.  “It was as if something was nipping at my heels — like something was driving me,” Smith said. “This is a story that couldn’t come out for my grandparents and parents.  “It had to wait decades. And then, by the slimmest of chances and just connecting the dots, it grew. One discovery led to another.”

Smith stumbled on information that he had never seen before.  Inside the box was a letter written by his uncle. The return address shows that he flew with the 39th Fighter squadron.  An Internet search revealed that Mangas flew in an air battle considered the tipping point of the Pacific air-war.  Mangas was one of four fighter pilots that scrambled to attack an armada of 35 enemy planes in the first-ever aerial combat by the P38 Lightning in the South Pacific on Dec. 27, 1942.

That day he flew with then 2nd Lt. Dick Bong and Capt. Tommy Lynch, who would become No. 1 and No. 24 respectively on the all-time list of U.S. Fighter Aces. Lt. Ken Sparks is just down the list with 11 victories. By the war’s end, the four men would account for 73 confirmed aerial victories, Smith said.  “I found all that on the Internet,” he said. “My God, this was enormous.”

He also found a way to connect with living veterans from the squadron and their families.
Smith was also able to talk with pilots that were with his Uncle John on two of the three missions the squadron flew on Jan. 8, 1943, the day Mangas disappeared.  “Their memories are growing a bit dim, but they’re still at their post,” Smith said. “John was the first P38 Lighting pilot lost in their squadron and they remember that. They still grieve and hurt for those who were lost.”

Burned brightly
During his final mission, Mangas was reportedly last seen continuing to make passes at enemy planes when flight leader Lt. Hoyt Eason called all pilots to form up and return to Moresby.  To this day, fellow pilots disagree on whether he went down over land or water. It was only recently that the family learned Lt. Eason stayed behind for 15 minutes attempting to locate Mangas.  The Mangas family learned on March 17, 1943, that John was missing. Two months later the family received John’s Silver Star in a military ceremony at their home. One week later, they received a box containing John’s personal effects.

Around the same time, the family also received letters from a squadron commander and pilot buddy that informed them that crew members of a distressed B17 bomber witnessed Mangas come to their rescue.  “He shot down several planes before being shot down himself,” Smith said. “There were witnesses to his act of heroism.  “He was doing his job and it cost him his life, but it was all just a detail lost to history.”

As a matter of policy, the U.S. government declared all MIAs as killed in action or finding of death in March 1946.  The family was notified of the change in status in 1949, when a definitive declaration was made that Mangas was non-recoverable, Smith said.
Monday’s aerial tribute will serve as a fitting honor to publicly acknowledge a pilot that answered his call to duty and made the ultimate sacrifice, he added.
“It’s the recognition, the finish line to cross for John Mangas,” Smith said. “There has never been an end to this story. This is the end.”

Being able to share his uncle’s story and resolve some of the lingering questions for his family about Mangas’ World War II contributions means a great deal to Smith.
“I think that I’ve discovered that there was greatness here,” Smith said. “Here was a 22-year-old whose flame burned brightly. We lost a guy who could have been governor.”