For most of her life, 54-year-old Becky Hilsheimer thought her uncle William had died of a heart attack aboard a plane during World War II. Only recently did the Arlington resident learn the truth -- that her uncle and 39 other U.S. soldiers and airmen were killed when their plane crashed.
Wayne Ogren, 72, of Bremen, Ga., found out in December that his brother Jack had died in the B-17C crash in Bakers Creek, Australia, and that he had been memorialized for several years in a monument near the site. His brother was an Ohio native, and Ogren sent a Buckeye flag to Australia in March so it could be flown at the monument.
Jo Morris, 82, of Collins, Ga., had long known that her brother, Frank Whelchel, died in the World War II accident -- her husband, who was also in the service, had been waiting for the plane at an airstrip before it went down in the fog. But until recently, Morris did not realize how many others had died.
Hilsheimer, Ogren and Morris, and scores of others across the country, share a new connection through the crash on June 14, 1943, a disaster that was not officially acknowledged by the Air Force until four years ago.
Yesterday, the 61st anniversary of the accident, the victims were commemorated for the first time on American soil. Family members, representatives of the Australian Embassy and the man who has helped bring the surviving relatives together, Robert Cutler of Potomac, joined in a wreath-laying at the National World War II Memorial and expressed hope that the event would become more widely known in the United States.
Though many of the victims' relatives could not attend the ceremony, several said that the recent revelations about the crash, and the overdue commemoration, have brought new clarity to the victims' legacy.
"From the information we've gotten, it has been very heartwarming and comforting to know that after all these years there have been people working on this," Morris said. "Until now," she said of the victims, "they've gone unrecognized."
The accident left one survivor: Foye K. Roberts, at the time an Army corporal. He died Feb. 4 in Wichita Falls, Tex., at age 83.
The crash remains the deadliest in Australian history. Residents of Mackay, near where the crash occurred, commemorate the event annually, and in 1992 created their monument to the victims.
But U.S. officials, under orders not to reveal the presence of Allied troops in Australia, kept the crash a secret during the war. Family members simply were told that their relatives had died somewhere in the South Pacific. Information about the crash was declassified in 1958, but many facts remained missing.
That changed 15 years ago, when Cutler, reading his father's wartime journals, found references to the accident. Fascinated by the revelation, and by the lack of information he found elsewhere about the incident, Cutler began a research project that would consume more than a decade and take him to Australia.
He learned that a friend of the victims, retired Master Sgt. Ted Hanks, also had investigated the crash, and the two compiled a list of victims and began looking for their families. They had found the families of 19 victims by last June, when Cutler, Hanks and 14 of the family members traveled to Mackay for the 60th anniversary of the crash.
After an article about Cutler's research ran a year ago in The Washington Post, he heard from two retired Army genealogy experts, Lt. Col. C.K. Gailey III of Springfield and Lt. Col. Arvon Staats of Oklahoma City. Together they found six more families, using public documents, the Internet and genealogy software.
When Morris heard that someone was calling about her brother, she thought at first that it was a scam. Gailey had found her through obituaries for her mother and brother.
Morris said that Whelchel was not scheduled to fly that day but asked to be part of the crew. His was short of money and he wanted to earn some extra flight pay, she said. Besides the crew of six, the plane -- a bomber that had been converted for transport duty -- carried 35 soldiers returning to New Guinea after rest-and-recreation in Australia.
"My family knew about the location before other families did, but we didn't have contact with the [other families]," Morris said. "It's just been fantastic to know that there are others out there."
At yesterday's ceremony, retired Col. Carlos Dannacher, 85, of Sterling, remembered the four men from his 40th Fighter Squadron who died in the crash -- including Hilsheimer's uncle William. An Australian news crew filmed as Dannacher, Gailey, Cutler and John Miklavcic, a squadron leader from the Royal Australian Air Force, stood to honor the victims. Hilsheimer watched the ceremony, as did several visitors who happened to be at the World War II memorial.
"It's always nice to see the people stop and ask what you're doing," Gailey said. "You have to believe, with World War II all over the world, there are stories out there just waiting to be told."