“I saw a burst of flak explode between the left engine and cockpit of A/C #43-4059. The glass in the cockpit was shattered and it filled with smoke. The airplane then rolled over on its side and disappeared into a cloud.” – Witness, 2nd Lt. Edwin W. Andrews, United States Army Air Corps.
VACAVILLE — At 5:02 p.m. June 7, 1944, near Vernio, Italy, Diane deFord’s father was shot out of the sky by the Germans during World War II.
The B-25J Mitchell was carrying a U.S. Army Air Corps crew of seven from the 379th Bomb Squadron, 310th Bomb Group based in Ghisonaccia, Corsica. According to declassified war records, the plane was flying at about 10,000 feet in the 10th position in the 18-plane formation, returning from a bombing run on “a railroad viaduct and two road bridges in Vernio, Castelfranco di Sotto and Cecina, Italy.”
Six died in the downed plane, including deFord’s father, 21-year-old pilot 2nd Lt. Benton F. Eichorn. The tail gunner, Sgt. Wilmer Hochstatter, parachuted to safety but was missing and in hiding for 90 days with a harrowing story of his own to tell after hitting the lines of the Allies and safety.
Vacaville resident deFord, 70, didn’t know much about her father growing up, but that all changed in January when an Italian woman, Lisa Nannini, set the ball rolling that would bring her father back into her life, larger than ever, and send her daughter, Holly Mead, 35, on a Nancy Drew-like detective search through the Internet and declassified war reports and correspondence ranging from military to personal.
Not only has Mead dug up additional information on Eichorn, she’s also located surviving family of the crew members.
It will all culminate June 7 when the family will travel to Vernio, Italy, to meet with Nannini for a celebration the town is putting together for the 70th anniversary of the plane crash and the liberation of Vernio from the Germans – and the dedication of a book that features the plane. Surviving family of other crew members are also planning to attend.
“I’ve been really proud of my daughter,” deFord said. “I have to give her credit – if she’s on something, she’s tireless. She worked nonstop to locate the survivors of the crew members.”
DeFord was 5 months old when her father died and while growing up was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents. Her young parents, high school sweethearts, had only been married a short time before Eichorn’s death, which was classified as missing in action for about a year before he and the others were declared dead.
DeFord took a trip to Italy three years ago and on a train going to Venice she said she remembered looking at some hills and trees in the distance and figuring that the crash site “was over there somewhere.” At the time, it was the closest deFord thought she’d ever get, she said.
“I tried to ask my mother but she didn’t want to talk about it,” deFord said of a time when she was younger. “No one ever talked about things.”
She gradually lost touch with much of her father’s side of the family. Her mother died in 2004. Consequently Mead grew up not knowing her grandfather, either.
“Since we lost contact with his side of the family, we did not have stories or photos, just . . . one military photo,” Mead said.
The family did know that his remains were buried in a common grave with two other crew members at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. More locally, deFord and her maternal grandparents visited a memorial grave in Ontario every Memorial Day. They would also have flowers sent to the grave at Fort Sam Houston. The community grave cross notes Eichorn’s rank as 1st lieutenant. He received that rank posthumously.
Denise Hathaway, 62, is the daughter of Eichorn’s older brother. The Arizona resident said she grew up knowing about his sacrifice for his country and hearing “typical sibling” types of stories. Eichorn’s photo, and one of him and his crew standing in front of the plane nicknamed “The Ripper,” hung in her grandfather’s home.
“We knew he was shot down over Italy, but not much more than that was ever discussed and so I grew up only knowing him through pictures,” Hathaway said.
Her father was in the 82nd Airborne during World War II, but also never talked about his time in the war. In honor of her father, she set out to learn more and to replace some stolen medals that belonged to her father. She also promised her father she’d find out what happened to his brother during the war. She sent away for Eichorn’s Individual Deceased Personnel File and by joining the American World War II Orphans Network she was able to hire someone to go to Washington, D.C., to search archives and research Eichorn’s flight history.
The information was presented to her dad in 1999 and also included in a 2005 book. In the mid-1990s, Hathaway also started to build the pages on Eichorn at the “Find-A-Grave” website. She was hoping that family of the crew members or deFord would find the pages and contact her.
“I had a lot of pictures Benton had taken during boot camp and flight training. (I) also had pictures of his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Diane (deFord),” Hathaway said. “I wanted to hand over these things to his daughter.”
Hathaway, whose father died in 2007, was eventually able to track down deFord through deFord’s ex-husband, who put her in touch with Holly Mead in 2010 via Facebook. The three women met in 2012 and Hathaway passed on Eichorn’s personal items to deFord. It was the first time either of them saw photos of him as a child. DeFord also has her father’s Purple Heart.
The bolt out of the blue came in January, when Nannini contacted Hathaway through Facebook after coming across that “Find-A-Grave” website she’d put together all those years ago.
Nannini explained to Hathaway in emails that her Italian World War II historical group, “Linea Gotica Alta Val di Bisenzio,” was interested in the American plane that was shot down that fateful day in 1944 – 2½ miles southwest of Vernio. The group was restoring the war trenches and with metal detectors found pieces of the airplane. She, too, did some Internet research, she told Hathaway in an email, and began looking for the crew members.
In an email to the Daily Republic, Nannini explained more and wrote that in 2012 after finding many pieces from the airplane and doing some cross-checking of artifacts and witnesses, they created the museum to showcase some of the things found, such as a control stick knob, pieces of wing and a radio antenna.
Then there was a special find for Eichorn’s family.
“In autumn of 2013, a young hunter (from) Vernio found in (the) woods of Poggiole of Vernio, a dog tag of Benton Eichorn and he (gave) it to us,” Nannini wrote. “So me, with other members, we decided to search (for the) family of Benton to give them the dog tag and create a ceremony and book about this fact.”
Emails flew between Mead, Nannini and Hathaway in January and February.
“As it has unfolded, it’s been incredible,” deFord said of learning about her father.
Mead flew into near obsessive mode searching for family of the crew members, including the one who survived. So far she’s located family spread throughout the U.S. for all of the crew except for radio gunner Staff Sgt. Donald F. Ney. The remaining crew members included co-pilot 1st Lt. William Everett Jr., navigator 2nd Lt. Simon L. Sawyer, bombardier 1st Lt. Frank R. Wargo, gunner Staff Sgt. Raymond F. Thompson, Hochstatter and Eichorn.
“It does bother me that in all my research I cannot find family members of . . . Ney,” Mead said. “He has completely vanished. I don’t even know where he was buried . . . Hopefully, like the rest of the process, more information surface(s).”
She added that she might get so desperate in her search that she’ll start “calling all the Neys in Detroit.”
Tracking them down has enabled her to pass along to Nannini and other family members the historical documents both Mead and Hathaway have discovered. Initially, though, she met lots of skepticism as she worked her way through wrong numbers, obituaries and more. She joked that she learned to tell the story fast so possible family members wouldn’t hang up the phone thinking she was a telemarketer.
Hathaway, Mead and deFord are expecting some emotional moments while in Italy in June – and 70 years later Mead and deFord are getting to know a man they knew little about. The process has brought them full circle, connecting with each other and with other families that dealt with the same tragedy as the Eichorns.
“It has been great getting to know Diane and Holly through this process and I’m so happy that they are getting to know more about the father and grandfather they never knew,” Hathaway said. “The journey since January has answered more questions and thanks to Holly we now know more about all of the men on the plane that fateful day.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.