Gastonia students help an American hero to return home
GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) — Time marched on unapologetically in 1944 after an American pilot crashed during a dogfight over Germany and was killed in World War II.
U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Stanley Stegnerski was declared missing and deceased, but never found or fully accounted for. Decades of pining for some confirmation of his fate dragged on slowly and painfully for his loved ones near Philadelphia.
That long interlude extended to 2008, when a pair of Gastonia high school students visiting Germany led an effort to finally confirm Stegnerski’s resting place. David Iezzi and Brooke Conrad played a pivotal role in investigating what had transpired so long ago. Yet even they began a frustrating, decade-long wait to see their research produce some legitimate conclusion.
But during a memorial service, the passage of time paid dividends, as Stegnerski’s story attained some comforting closure. His remains were finally recovered and returned home, allowing him to be laid to rest in a Delaware cemetery beside his brother, another World War II veteran.
Janice Tunell, a longtime friend of the Stegnerskis who served as a caregiver for Stanley’s brother, Henry, said there were many people responsible for filling the gap in their hearts. But it would have never been possible without the devotion of two teenagers from North Carolina who embraced an opportunity to help.
“For them to go over and take such an interest in this whole thing was just amazing,” said Tunell, who was presented with an American flag during Stegnerski’s memorial service Jan. 22, accepting it on behalf of his family. “I don’t think we would have seen that day without Simon Roe, David, Brooke, and the Gastonia Sister Cities program. Because they really brought to life for us that something was going to happen.”
A worthwhile project
Simon and Sunny Roe of Belmont have been longtime supporters of Gastonia’s Sister Cities program. The school-based venture aims to foster friendships and understanding with people from foreign countries, through partnerships in education, culture, economic development and dialogue.
Local teenagers have been the primary envoys in the 25 years since the program was adopted here. Delegations of high school students annually travel to Gastonia’s two official Sister Cities — Gotha, Germany and Santiago de Surco, Peru. Students from those countries similarly make annual trips here.
In 2007, Clemens Festag, the principal of the high school in Gotha, pitched an idea to Simon Roe about a project for the American and German students to work on together there. A teacher and historian at the school was investigating a plane that had been shot down and crashed during World War II, about five miles outside Gotha. He had used a metal detector to locate some of the plane’s components, including an engine mount with an American serial number.
“He had contacted some American aviation folks and found out it was a P-51 Mustang,” said Roe. “They had contacted the Air Force and JPAC (the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command) and found out who the plane belonged to.”
All signs pointed to Stanley Stegnerski’s remains being somewhere amid the crash site. But before a formal process of investigating the area could begin, some substantive details needed to be provided.
So when about a dozen Gastonia students went to Gotha in 2008, two of them jumped at the chance to help with that. All of the Americans on the trip took part in an impromptu memorial service for the pilot at the site where he was believed to have died. And afterward, Roe, who was a chaperone on the trip, joined Conrad and Iezzi in another exercise.
“We spent three hours interviewing two eyewitnesses who witnessed the dogfight,” Roe said.
Stanley Stegnerski was one of three brothers, all of whom fought in the war’s European Theater. He was a native of Chester, Pennsylvania, nestled near the state lines of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
On Nov. 21, 1944, he took off in his P-51 Mustang from an English air force base in Norfolk, as part of a bomber escort mission. Over Merseburg, Germany, the American aircraft clashed with a group of about 20 German fighters. Stegnerski was last seen as he prepared to attack the enemy planes.
JPAC research after the war found a German record of a Nov. 21 crash of a Mustang with a tail number similar to Stegnerski’s. That report stated the pilot could not be identified and his remains were buried in nearby Grafentonna.
With no information on Stegnerski as a prisoner of war, the Secretary of War declared him missing Nov. 22, 1945. Based on captured German records, he was declared deceased in July 1947.
After 1947, Grafentonna ended up being in the portion of East Germany that fell under Soviet control, and its Communist forces restricted efforts by U.S. officials to find the missing pilot.
The two German elders were seasoned and well versed in the ways of life by the time the American interviewers and an interpreter sat down with them in 2008. But they had vivid memories of the violence in the skies they had witnessed 64 years before.
“They were biking home from school and were just kids at the time,” said Conrad, now a registered nurse who lives in Roanoke, Virginia. “They heard the planes go over and thought something was going to happen. So they basically witnessed this dogfight and crash.”
Roe recalls the men offering details such as local air raid sirens going off, and the two of them diving into a ditch for shelter at one point.
“It was touching, incredible,” he said of the conversation. “Like nothing you’d ever experienced before.”
One of the men relayed how he had ventured near the cockpit of the crashed Mustang and retrieved the pilot’s oxygen mask from the ground, then took it and some other pieces of the wreckage home with him. But later that night, officers with the German Schutzstaffel, or SS, showed up at the door of his home and demanded it back.
“It was interesting to me at least the SS would be able to find out so quickly they’d taken pieces from the crash site,” Conrad said.
One more interview
After they returned home, Conrad, Iezzi and Roe traveled up to Delaware to interview Stegnerski’s only surviving brother, Henry, who was 81 at the time. Their third sibling, Ted, had died in 2002. But Henry was able to share a wealth of knowledge that gave Conrad and Iezzi more insight into what kind of person Stanley had been.
“It kind of just ran the gamut,” Conrad said.
They collected his DNA to help with a future identification of Stanley’s remains. And they gained an understanding of the lifetime of sorrow he had endured from never knowing for certain what happened to his brother.
“From my observation, that was something Henry was fairly sad about,” Conrad said. “He always wanted to have the resolution of knowing his brother would be brought back home to American soil.”
Tunell was Henry Stegnerski’s caregiver by then and recalled the high school students’ dedication to the project.
“The kids were so excited and enthused about everything,” she said. “I thought it was great they took such interest in an old man. They even got in a car with him and drove all over to see where they used to live.
“When they came to our house, I felt like I’d known these people for years.”
Investigation pays off
The Sister Cities team put all of their interviews and evidence together and shared it with JPAC leaders. The information they provided then prompted a U.S. team to investigate the crash site, and recover a piece of the plane’s engine that matched Stegnerski’s aircraft.
Due to other recovery cases that were higher in the pecking order, a defense agency team wouldn’t be able to fully excavate the site for eight more years. During that wait, Henry Stegnerski died in February 2015.
But in August 2016, a more thorough investigation of the crash site turned up a trove of material evidence, bone fragments and other remains. One of the objects officials found offered a further testament to the symbolism of time in the entire story.
It was Stanley Stegnerski’s watch, stopped at 12:20 p.m., which was the approximate time witnesses had said the plane crashed.
Within a year of that, DNA and dental records were used to positively identify Stegnerski’s remains. Tunell said when she learned about that, and everything else that had been discovered, including the watch, she couldn’t stop crying.
“When I got that call, the first people I tried to get ahold of were Simon, then Brooke, then David,” she said. “We were all so excited.”
A pivotal role
Tunell said they could have had Stanley Stegnerski’s memorial service in early December. But they postponed it until late January to ensure the group from Gastonia could all attend. Iezzi traveled there from where he now lives in Richmond, Virginia.
“I rank it up there with one of the top 10 days of my life,” Tunell said of the Jan. 22 event, which was attended by well over 200 people. “Having Simon and Sunny, Brooke and David, and David’s parents with us, it just rounded out the whole thing.”
Conrad said being a part of something so meaningful has played a pivotal role in her becoming the person she is.
“It was an amazing experience and I’m so happy I was able to contribute to the process and to something that’s a lot bigger than myself,” she said.
Tunell also credits the Sister Cities program for providing a platform for coaxing along Stanley Stegnerski’s discovery.
“There were 50 moving parts that all had to fit together to make this happen,” she said. “It had to start somewhere. If you took that piece out of the puzzle, I don’t know that we would have ever gotten here to the end.”