SORROW IS LAID TO REST; A 55-YEAR QUEST FOR CLOSURE ENDS WITH
PILOT'S BURIAL AT ARLINGTON
WASHINGTON POST STAFF WRITER
Thursday, June 10, 1999 ; Page B01
Patricia Gaffney-Ansel grew up with no memory of her father,
with nothing more than a battered leather suitcase that sat
in her attic, bearing faded newspaper clippings and letters
of a life that ended three months before she was born.
The suitcase "had a presence," she said. "It was always there."
In March 1944, at the height of World War II, 23-year-old
2nd Lt. George Gaffney's P-47 Thunderbolt had disappeared in
a rugged mountain range in New Guinea after a bombing raid on
a Japanese base. A search by his squadron turned up nothing.
"There was always this knowledge that there would never be
an answer," Gaffney-Ansel said. "I would never know him. There
was no way of learning what happened."
But yesterday, Gaffney-Ansel capped an extraordinary six-year
quest by escorting her father's horse-drawn remains as he was
buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
The journey to fill the void in her life took her to the very
mountains and jungles where her father disappeared, and along
the way, many picked up her cause. There were pilots and other
World War II orphans who helped with her search; villagers in
remote parts of New Guinea who knew of aircraft wrecks deep
in the mountains; a Philadelphia businessman who, searching
for his great-uncle's plane, found Gaffney's last year; and
Army investigators who trekked to the site, recovered the remains
and positively identified them as Gaffney's.
As four Air Force A-10 Thunderbolts soared over Arlington
in a missing-man formation to salute her father, Patricia Gaffney-Ansel
looked at the sky and smiled.
George Gaffney had barely begun his life with Ruth Christensen
when he went off to war. Gaffney, born and raised in Madison,
Wis., had met the beauty school student at a high school dance.
He had already enlisted in the Army Air Force when he proposed,
and they were married in August 1943, just after he finished
"He had an Irish wit about him," said his widow, who remarried
and now goes by Ruth Kalupy. "He loved to read, and he loved
They spent a few hectic months together before Gaffney had
to leave his pregnant wife to join the 5th Air Force in the
Pacific. He arrived in Port Moresby, New Guinea, on Christmas
Eve 1943. The island had been the scene of some of the deadliest
fighting of the war.
Gaffney joined the 41st Fighter Squadron in February 1944
at a base at Gusap. The squadron was engaged in furious bombing
and strafing runs over wide areas of northeast New Guinea. Gaffney
was flying the P-47, a single-seat fighter bomber that pilots
From Gusap, Gaffney wrote regular letters home describing
the war and asking for news of the home front. He could not
contain his excitement about the baby on the way.
On March 10, he wrote his last letter home. He described the
lovely, soft sound made by the breeze blowing through the tall
kunai grass surrounding the airfield. "Did not fly today," he
added. "Due tomorrow, however."
The next morning, Gaffney joined the squadron's attack on
a Japanese base, skirmishing with enemy fighters. Gaffney became
separated from the squadron and landed for refueling at a small
Gaffney "appeared rather nervous," officers there reported.
The pilot reported having shot down a Japanese plane and said
his aircraft may have been hit. An inspection found no damage,
and Gaffney took off for Gusap. It was only 20 minutes away,
but his flight took him over the Finesterre Mountains, a formidable,
jungle-covered range rising above 12,000 feet and often shrouded
with clouds that made flying treacherous.
He never made it. The squadron searched for three days but
found no sign of him. Squadron mates wrote kind letters to Gaffney's
family, expressing hope that because his plane went down in
friendly territory, he might soon show up.
Back in Wisconsin, the telegram reporting that Gaffney was
missing was met with disbelief, particularly with a baby due.
"Dear God, please bring our Georgie back, don't let this child
grow up not knowing her father," one of Gaffney's aunts wrote
nearly every day in her diary for almost five years after her
But that is how Patricia Gaffney grew up.
She married at 19, raised two children, went to college on
the GI bill and got divorced. She worked as a teacher and a
curriculum developer for the public schools in New Haven, Conn.
Going through her father's suitcase one day in 1986, she found
herself growing unexpectedly upset. "I was angry that I was
never going to have my father," she said.
Everything changed in September 1993, when Gaffney-Ansel heard
a researcher on a television program describe how World War
II crash sites were still being discovered in Papua New Guinea,
as the country has been known since it gained independence in
"It was a life-changing moment, and I knew it," Gaffney-Ansel
said. "My heart was pounding so hard. This is a crack in the
door, and I have to reach into it."
She immediately contacted the researcher, Janice Olson, who
put her in touch with people and groups, such as the American
WWII Orphans Network, that could help her. She obtained war
records from the military. Her mother put her in touch with
men who had served in his squadron. She attended their reunions
and listened to their tales.
In May 1995, she jumped at the chance to join Olson on an
expedition to Papua New Guinea. Once there, pilot Richard Leahy
flew her to Gusap, the now-abandoned airfield where her father
had been based.
Gaffney-Ansel brought along a metal box, containing letters
she, her children and her mother had written to George Gaffney,
along with other personal treasures. Walking out into the kunai
grass her father had described hearing a half-century earlier,
she buried the box.
"I stood listening for that sound," she said.
Leahy flew her on her father's route over the Finesterre.
"I felt like I was meeting the enemy -- the mountains that
took my father," she said.
Gaffney-Ansel realized more than ever how unlikely it was
that she would ever find her father. "I suddenly became aware
for the first time how it is that a man just goes missing,"
Her quest came to the attention of Fred Hagen, a Philadelphia
businessman who was conducting a search in Papua New Guinea
for the wreck of the plane flown by his great-uncle. During
a visit in November 1997, Hagen and Leahy found the wreck of
a B-25 bomber and the remains of nine men. Villagers told them
of another wreck a four-day walk away in the mountains.
Hagen returned with a team the next June and, traveling by
helicopter, found a crash site at 8,000 feet, in a beautiful
jungle draped with huge ferns and orchids. The plane was shattered
and the wreckage covered with mud, but Hagen could tell by the
propeller that it was a P-47. Lying amid the wreckage were a
pocket watch, a .45-caliber handgun and human remains.
The Army sent a team of investigators who confirmed that the
plane was Gaffney's by the serial numbers on the machine guns.
Gaffney-Ansel had something the Army could use to check the
identity of the human remains: her father's dental records,
which had been kept in the old suitcase. In January, the Army
confirmed that the remains were Gaffney's.
"When I got the news," Gaffney-Ansel said, "I didn't know
whether to laugh or cry, so I actually did a little of both."
Gaffney-Ansel flew last week to Hawaii to escort her father's
remains home to Wisconsin, where a funeral Mass was held in
Madison on Saturday.
"I feel victorious, really," said Gaffney-Ansel. "I feel I've
been able to bring my father out of the past and into the present.
I've been able to develop a daughter's love for her father."
After the ceremony at Arlington, she stood with her mother,
aunt and two children in front of her father's casket. Clutching
to her heart the folded flag that had draped his remains, she
kissed her hand and placed it on the casket.
"It was hard to leave him," she said afterward. "It's bittersweet,
really. My time with him was very short."
Cutline: Patricia Gaffney-Ansel places a flower on the
coffin of her father, 2nd Lt. George Gaffney. At left is Ruth
Kalupy, who was pregnant with Patricia when her first husband
2nd Lt. George Gaffney in the early 1940s.
An Army honor guard places the coffin of World War II
pilot George Gaffney on the grave site.
Articles appear as they were originally printed in The
Washington Post and may not include subsequent corrections.