World War II Ironman's remains return home

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Marina Pevey
  • 1st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
In the hallway of the 71st Fighter Squadron here hangs a large wooden board adorned with framed names of "Ironmen" pilots from World War II and Operation Desert Storm. One of those names is 1st Lt. Carl Hoenshell. Three Maltese crosses under his name indicate the number of enemy aircraft he shot down with the date, June 10, 1944. It was the last mission he completed.

Now, nearly 59 years after his P-38 Lightning aircraft was shot down, Hoenshell's remains returned home. His family buried him with full military honors in his hometown of Owosso, Mich., on May 25. The 71st FS honored its fallen comrade from the past with a missing-man formation flyover during the ceremony.

Elizabeth Wilson and David Hoenshell, the lieutenant's niece and nephew, spent years working with the Army to find and recover their uncle's remains.

Shortly after 71st FS airmen returned from supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, Wilson asked if the squadron could support the lieutenant's memorial service, said Lt. Col. Mac McKenzie, 71st FS commander.

"There was never a question as to whether or not we would support this event, only how to narrow down the list of volunteers to just four pilots," McKenzie said. "We are forever in debt to Lieutenant Hoenshell for his service and sacrifice, and it is the least we can do."

Wilson said the family is thankful for the 71st FS airmen’s participation in the ceremony.

"The family is deeply honored that the 71st FS is taking time to participate in the flyover. It means so much," she said. "These airmen, all these years later, are willing to pay their respects to a fallen comrade even though he was shot down many years and conflicts before they were in the military."

In 1944, Hoenshell was part of the 71st FS stationed at Salsola Airfield in Foggia, Italy. On June 10, he was among 48 P-38 pilots who rendezvoused with bombers from the 82nd Fighter Group for a low-level, dive-bombing attack on the Ploesti oil refineries in Romania. While returning from the mission, they were attacked by German fighters. Out of ammunition, Hoenshell instructed his fellow pilots to hit the deck and make a run for home. The last reported observation stated Hoenshell drew at least three of the enemy fighters away from the remaining flight. In 1945, he was officially removed from the missing in action list and declared killed in action.

Hoenshell’s niece and nephew began a quest to locate and recover his remains in 1995. Wilson explained she was motivated by her grandmother's wish to have her son found, returned home and buried next to her.

"As a child at my grandmother's house I saw pictures of my uncle and always heard stories about him," she said. "Every June, my grandmother got his letters out of the cedar chest. She would spread the letters on the floor around her and cry. It left an indelible mark on David and me."

Her grandmother died in the 1980s, but her wish stayed with the two cousins. They began researching online and made contact with former 1st Fighter Group members who were able to tell her about her uncle and his mission.

Eventually they narrowed down the probable crash site.

In 1998, Wilson organized and financed a site survey team. The Wilsons and the team traveled to Bulgaria. In the fall of 1999, the excavation team found Hoenshell's identification bracelet. The same year, hostilities in Kosovo increased and excavation efforts were put on hold; however, the team was not deterred.

Once the Balkans conflict calmed down, the team resumed efforts and, in August 2002, achieved success. Hoenshell's remains and several personal items were recovered and positively identified. The remains were carefully removed, shipped to Hawaii and processed by U.S. Army mortuary affairs.

Hoenshell’s remains arrived home this month and May 25, Wilson and her family fulfilled her grandmother's wish. The lieutenant was buried in his hometown, next to his mother in a plot purchased more than 50 years ago.

"I am proud of the Air Force, Carl and this country," Wilson said. "It says a lot about the core spirit of our country and her military. Our government will bring home our fallen with honor and respect. No other country in the world does this or even understands." (Courtesy of Air Combat Command News Service)