MISSING IN ACTION

MADISON WWII COMBAT PILOT WAS LONG LOST, BUT NOW IS FOUND

Published on Sunday, May 30, 1999
� 1999 Madison Newspapers, Inc.

Byline: GEORGE HESSELBERG WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

  When George P. Gaffney Jr. -- everyone called him ``Georgie'' -- enlisted in the Army Air Force in March 1942, he was attending the University of Wisconsin and working part time as a dispatcher for Madison Gas and Electric.

  The war was on and he figured his number was coming up anyway, so he went to Milwaukee and like many of his boyhood chums from Henry and Wilson streets, enlisted.

  He left behind his sweetheart, Ruth Christensen, a beauty school student from Evansville he had met at an East High School dance.

  Almost a year later, after making 2nd lieutenant and finishing pilot training, he went directly to Chicago to propose. The couple then went together to Florida and got married on Aug. 13, 1943. The Gaffneys ended up in Tallahassee waiting with hundreds of other would-be pilots for assignment.

  ``We didn't know where we were going until minutes before the train left,'' remembered his buddy, Bob Rouse, who had joined up from west Texas.

  ``Every day we got together twice, hundreds of us. When they called our number we knew we were on our way. No one had a chance to call their wives or tell them we were leaving. The phone lines had been disconnected.''

  Ruth went back to Evansville to live with her parents, Bernie (the village barber) and Elsie.

  Rouse and Gaffney headed to the West Coast.

  ``As fast as they could process our paper and give us our equipment, we were gone. We got on an airplane at night and then we were told we were going to the Fifth Air Force, Australia.''

   Gaffney and Rouse found themselves en route to the 41st Fighter Squadron, the ``Flying Buzz Saws,'' one of the first squadrons sent to Southwest Asia after Pearl Harbor.

  On Christmas Eve, 1943, the two arrived in Port Moresby, New Guinea. They were sent to a place called Nadzab.

  ``Nadzab was getting to be a pretty big base. The war had been going for two years already. It was the first time we had a chance to settle down a little bit and George and I and two others were assigned to a tent. One day we looked around and he was gone,'' recalled Rouse.

  Gaffney contracted malaria and was sent to a hospital in Mackay, Australia. By the time he rejoined his group in mid-February, it had moved to a base at Gusap, on the Ramu River. He had also lost valuable time learning his new job: flying a P-47.

  The P-47 is a single-seat fighter bomber, nearly 20,000 pounds loaded, able to reach speeds of 428 mph. It could carry bombs and was fitted with eight 50-caliber machine guns. Ex-fighter pilots speak of the plane, the heaviest Allied fighter of World War II, with reverence.

  ``We went on strafing missions, dive-bombing railroads and convoys and escorting bombers,'' said Rouse.

  ``We would go down to the alert tent and fire up the old Briggs and Stratton generators so we had light, and the clerks would post or tell us where to go. There would be a short briefing and they would post the order of the planes and formations. The new boy usually flew on the leader's wing, so the leader could keep an eye on him. As you got experience you could drop back further in the squadron (formation). Flying together we were able to form a bond that made us a better unit. Because George was gone at first, he didn't get that benefit right away.

  ``I was on leave in Sydney (Australia) when I heard he had disappeared.''

  That was March 11, 1944. His three sisters and his parents grieved. His daughter, Patricia Gaffney, was born in Madison 103 days later, June 22.

  Patricia Gaffney grew up in Evansville and moved to Madison with her mother when she was 12. She remembers that ``Gusap,'' her father's base camp in New Guinea, was one of her childhood words. Her mother married again, this time to a World War II veteran who died when Patricia was 9.

  She had no memories of her father, but that didn't mean she wasn't aware of his presence in her life. Nor did members of his family necessarily consider him to be gone.

  ``I was fortunate. I knew my father's family. My father's three sisters were in California, but his three aunts were in Madison and they treated me like a little princess. They loved me very dearly and they suffered his loss greatly. I have read their diaries and it makes you sad. One wrote almost daily for five years, praying `Dear God, please bring our Georgie back, don't let this child grow up not knowing her father.' ``I remember them taking me up State Street and into some of the stores where they knew people and they would say, `This is Georgie's daughter.' I knew people were looking at me and thinking of him.

  ``What I knew I learned from my mother. And what she had learned were these very official things from the government. And there were letters sent to her from men in the 41st, and his tent mates. I knew I grew up with that image in my mind of this kind of dark, murky place, and that was it, and I always lived knowing that it would not be any different.''

  Patricia spent her teen years in Madison, graduated from East High School, and left.

  Patricia married, and moved to the East Coast, went to college on the GI Bill, raised two children, got divorced. Finding her father was not a passion, or even an interest, but one day she decided to go through her father's battered old leather suitcase.

  ``It always had a presence in the attic,'' she recalled.

  ``It was about 15 years ago, 1984, and mother had put all of Daddy's stuff in there. I was taking things out of it. It was the first time I remember ever having any emotion about (my father's death) and I got angry. I was just angry that I was never going to know anything and that this isn't fair, and why was I keeping this stuff. I did throw some things out.''

   She kept some letters her father wrote to her mother, one on the day before he disappeared.

  ``But I kept his records, all his medical records and dental records were there too. I kept them.''

  She sent the rest back to her mother.

  ``I couldn't keep these things, it was too heavy a burden for me,'' said Patricia.

  In 1993 Patricia, now Gaffney-Ansel, was working as curriculum developer in the New Haven, Conn., school district. She was watching a morning television talk show, ``Good Morning America.'' Janice Olson, an aircraft wreck researcher, was discussing a New Guinea crash site of a World War II bomber.

  ``When she said `New Guinea' my head snapped up, it was a phenomenal moment.''

  From that moment on, Patricia directed her off-time efforts to finding her father. She started with no knowledge, but she immediately contacted the woman on the television program.

  Olson, after gently telling her that it was doubtful her father was still alive, encouraged Patricia to begin the search that Patricia now calls a ``journey of the heart.''

  She quickly found that there were fellow travelers, even an organization, the American WWII Orphans Network.

  She needed help maneuvering through the maze of documents and reports and information available from military and private sources about the 350 American and Australian aircraft that disappeared while on flights in eastern New Guinea between 1942 and 1945.

  She looked for anyone who had known her father, any source that mentioned him. She talked with his boyhood chums from Henry Street, a group of about a dozen boys, including Tom Starry, who still lives in Madison, and Richie Lynch, who moved to California. She hooked up with the 41st Fighter Squadron and went to their reunions. They gave her a place of honor, her father's place. Patricia went to New Guinea with her mentor, Olson, in 1995.

 The old military airstrip at Gusap -- one of her childhood words -- was overgrown, long unused. Beneath the tall kunai grass she buried a small metal box filled with personal treasures, keepsakes, photographs and mementos.

  She flew with pilot Richard Leahy, a veteran wreck researcher, to see the treacherous terrain over which her father disappeared: The Finesterre Mountains, jagged, steep and jungle-covered.

  After that trip, a bond was established and events, positive events, happened quickly:

  In November 1996, an Australian wreck researcher, Bruce Hoy, contacted Patricia. Using information she had dropped off in her 1995 visit, he believed he had located her father's plane wreckage.

  A Philadelphia businessman, Alfred Hagen, who had already taken four trips to New Guinea looking for a relative's wreck, contacted Patricia. He had formed Historic Aircraft Recovery to find ``forgotten crash sites of WWII military planes lost in the remote islands and impenetrable jungles.'' She gave him her father's military records, which included the number stamped on her father's plane engine and machine guns.

  In November 1997, Hagen and Hoy and Leahy, found a mountain wreck of a B-25 and the remains of nine men. In an incident Patricia describes as a miracle, the three men landed their helicopter in a nearby village. Asking about other wrecks, the villagers said they knew of two wrecks ``four days walk'' away, at what the searchers speculated could be the site of the Gaffney plane.

  In June 1998, Hagen returned to the area and, with pilot Leahy's help, found a P-47 at one of those sites.

  In October 1998, the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory team, based in Hawaii, was scheduled to go to New Guinea on another assignment, and agreed to take a look at the site Hagen had discovered. The team confirmed that the machine guns discovered at that site were from Gaffney's missing plane.

  Jan. 15, 1999, the CIL in Hawaii contacted Patricia saying the forensic identification of the remains recovered from her father's crash site had been completed. A second consultation confirmed that the remains were of her father. The clinching evidence was a confirmation that two teeth found were Gaffney's. The records used for confirmation came from the records she salvaged from her father's old leather suitcase.

  March 11, 1999, 55 years after Gaffney's disappearance, the Army Board of Officers convened to sign confirmation that the find is indeed Gaffney.

  The Finesterre Mountains rise a few miles off the northeastern New Guinea coast, presenting a rocky curtain more than ten miles long. On March 11, 1944, George Gaffney and his 41st Fighter Squadron at Gusap were sent to a Japanese base at Wewak.

  A combat chronology of the U.S. Air Force activity from March 1944, notes furious activity in the Southwest Pacific Area on that day in preparation for the invasion of Manus. ``In New Guinea, 80 B-24s, B-25s and A-20s hit Boram airfield.

  P-47s strafe Hansa Bay and other aircraft carry out armed reconnaissance and sweeps over wide areas of NE New Guinea and the New Britain Coastal areas.''

  Gaffney, in his P-47, got into a dogfight over Wewak and was separated from his group. He made it back to Saidor further down the coast, for refueling. He reported he had downed one Japanese aircraft and thought his plane was damaged, but no damage was found. At 2:50 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon, he got into his P-47 for the 20-minute flight over the mountains and back to base at Gusap.

  His wreckage and remains were found in June 1998 at about 8,000 feet. His plane had flown into the side of the mountain.

  ``George went up to this red-hot base in Wewak, got into a fight and separated. He came down at Saidor and got gas and talked to whoever gassed him up,'' said Rouse.

  ``Those mountains go up 12,000 to 14,000 feet and the weather makes it impossible to fly after the clouds drop in. He ran into the mountain. That's where they found him directly on route to Gusap,'' he said.

  ``Because the mountains are so very high and young, there are steep slopes and deep valleys. Huge thick clouds develop by noon every day,'' said Patricia. ``I talked with the pilots. He was flying at the worst part of the day,'' Patricia said.

  ``He hit the side of the mountain at a tremendous impact, the plane broke into many pieces. It was at the headwaters of a river so the site itself is very muddy. A lot of the wreckage was buried in the mud.'' His remains were found there also.

  She said the jungle natives had long known of the wreck.

  ``The natives know that land, these are mountain people whose tribes have lived there for centuries. They hunt there. You and I would walk by it and probably not know there is a wreck there, it is covered by 55 years of jungle growth. In some of the photographs, you have to struggle to understand what you are looking at,'' she said.

  At the site, Gaffney's .45-caliber revolver was found, along with two waterproof match containers, a pocket watch. His dog tags -- military identification metal tags carried on a chain around a person's neck -- and wedding ring were not found.

  Patricia will pick up her father's remains in Hawaii this week for a return to Madison. Her mother Ruth Kalupy, who now lives in South Carolina, will join her here.

  As memories have been recalled, more are added. There are so many small things -- a 41st veteran gave her a silk map of New Guinea carried by pilots, the timing of the confirmation, the pure chance of watching television on a particular morning, keeping those military records -- that have added to the serendipity of this journey of the heart.

  She sees this journey as a magical event. When she buried that metal box at Gusap, she spoke her father's name not as a stranger, but as a daughter.

  ``I made an offering to the gods on that day, and they gave him up,'' she said.

  ``I am thankful to now be able to say his name,'' she said.

  A funeral for George P. Gaffney begin at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Raphael's Cathedral, 222 W. Main St., the church where George Gaffney was an altar boy and where his daughter was baptized 55 years ago.

  A grandson George Gaffney never met, David Philip Ansel, a graduate of the UW-Madison Law School, will give the eulogy; a granddaughter he never met, Lisa Rae Ansel, also a UW-Madison graduate, will sing in the choir. Gaffney's widow, family, war buddies and childhood friends will celebrate the end of 55 years of mystery and sorrow.
The Search for George Gaffney Jr.

Dec. 7, 1941: Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor

March 1942: George Gaffney Jr. enlists in the Army Air Force.

Aug. 13, 1943: Gaffney and Ruth Christenson marry in Florida.
Dec. 24, 1943: Gaffney arrives in New Guinea.

March 11, 1944: Gaffney's plane disappears in New Guinea.
March 25, 1944: Ruth Gaffney is told her husband is missing in New Guinea.
June 22, 1944: Patricia Gaffney is born.

September 1993: Patricia Gaffney hears wreck researcher Janice Olson talk about New Guinea.

May 1995: Patricia Gaffney and Olson travel to New Guinea.

November 1997: Researchers find B-25 wreck site and get tip on nearby wrecks.

June 26, 1998: A P-47 is located at one of those sites.
October 1998: Military recovery team confirms wreck is Gaffney's.

January 1999: Military forensic experts using evidence from crash site identify remains as Gaffney's, await independent confirmation.
March 11, 1999: Army Baord of Officers confirms the findings.
June 5, 1999: Gaffney's funeral service to be in Madison.
June 9, 1999: Gaffney to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.

Special to the State Journal

Patricia Gaffney-Ansel at home in New Haven, Conn., with a photo of her parents Ruth and George Gaffney Jr. and her father's Purple heart and pilot's wings.

Contributed photos

Wreck researcher Alfred Hagen with Gaffney's P-47 engine recovered from the mud in the Finesterre Mountains.

George Gaffney's wreckage and remains were found in the Finesterre Mountains on June 1998 at around 8,000 feet.

U.S. Air Force Museum

P-47 Thunderbolt

WSJ graphic: Map of New Guinea crash site