It would be unimaginable today for an American family to have seven members serving in the US armed Forces during the same conflict. Numbers like that are unheard of now, but they were not unusual during World War 2. One only needs to recall the five Sullivan brothers who perished together during the 1942 sinking of the USS Juneau to know that a conflict of that scale can wipe out entire families. Movies like Saving Private Ryan become even more sobering when you note that the plot reflects real-life events.
My father’s name was Michael; he was born in 1919 and was baptized as Angelo Michele Lanni. He was one of four brothers from an Italian-American family in Jersey City NJ. All four served in the US Armed Forces during World War 2. By the end of the war, the total number of family members in uniform had grown to eight, adding my Father’s two brothers-in-law and also his first cousins Dominick “Dom” Lanni, and his brother, Tony Lanni. Cousin Dom was only 18 years old at the time he enlisted in the USAAF.
Dominick and my Dad were close knit and they wrote each other frequently during the conflict. Dad was a radioman in the European theater first, and was shipped to the Pacific theater after VE Day for the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. He was a fastidious record keeper, and at the end of his life he entrusted to me hundreds of well-preserved letters, photographs and V-Mail detailing his experiences. I received these after I promised to him that I would keep them safe and use them to show his future descendants about his contribution to history.
Organizing Family History from Period Documents and Photographs
Now that I’ve had time to review every letter home, and follow my Dad’s journey through the war, another story has emerged. And it has taken on a life of its own. In the collection was one particular letter dated October 16th, 1943. It was to my Father from Cousin Dom. At the time, Dad was recuperating in a US Army hospital*. Dom was in radio & gunnery training in the US Army Air Corps.
The letter starts with the verbatim salutation “Dear F.O.”. It took me a moment to realize what the acronym meant. I realized that the hilarious and coarse sense-of-humor that these guys were known for was captured forever in a family heirloom. But on the second page, the letter’s tone changes from small-talk to concern. Cousin Dom asks my Father not to mention gunnery school to his parents. Dom wrote:
“Say Mike, don’t say anything to my folks about gunnery, you know how my mother worries over silly things. What she don’t know won’t bother her”.
These words would be a harbinger of things to come. Dominick did go on to graduate gunnery school and was immediately sent overseas to serve as a radio/gunner in a B-17. By the end of September of 1944, he was serving as the radioman & dorsal position gunner on a B-17G named “Sandy’s Refueling Boys” (serial #42-97232 for aviation history buffs). That aircraft, and thousands of others, flew bombing missions against some of Germany’s most heavily guarded targets. 10 weeks later, on his 17th mission to Stuttgart, Dom’s plane disappeared while en-route back to its home airfield in England. The date was December 16, 1944.
And that was it. Dominick, who was 19 years old by this time, and his fellow crew members, vanished into history. In May of 1945, the remains of the Co-pilot, 2LT Len Beadle, washed ashore at mile marker #14 near Zouteland, in the Netherlands. This area is in the North Sea, near the border of Belgium and Holland. The war raged on, and the trail to Dominick went cold. As the war in Europe came to end, my Father’s letters home to his sisters sought to reassure them that if Dom was alive and in a German POW camp, that his chances of survival were fairly good at this point in the war.
The Missing Air Crew Report (#11259) that documents the loss of the crew and their aircraft indicates that their last known position was over Zouteland near the North Sea. No one besides LT Beadle were ever found.
Promising New Evidence as a B-17G is Found in the North Sea
In 2018, the Flanders Marine Institute (FMI) was at work searching the seabed of the North Sea in the Belgian/Netherlands region. Their goal was to find any unexploded ordnance left over from the war. Their work preceded the planned routing of an underwater communications cable. They stumbled onto an amazing find; a somewhat intact B-17G on the sea floor not far from the last known positon of Sandy’s Refueling Boys.
While the condition of the wreckage is considered to be fairly well-preserved, the truly stunning news was that the remains of some of the crewmembers were visible and still within the aircraft. The FMI contacted the Belgian and US authorities with the position of the wreck, as well as photographs, recovered parts, and a video of the aircraft. The US Government has narrowed the identification of the aircraft down to one of only four B-17Gs that disappeared in the North Sea. At this point in time, there is a 25% chance that this is Dominick’s final resting place. If it is, it will bring closure to nine families nearly 76 years later.
Since this discovery, I have researched and assembled the many pieces of documentation pulled from the National Archives in both the United States, and what is publicly available from Europe. My goal was to make sure that every link in the paper trail associated with Dom’s service and disappearance was made available to the Department of POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). And while they have the access to the same records, I am certain they also have access to material I do not. So supplying them with every aid possible could only make their work in identifying this aircraft somewhat easier. After receiving my files, the DPAA responded to me with a case number.
Since this kind of project involves expensive resources and the scheduling of trained recovery personnel, I can only imagine that this will be a difficult and delicate project. We will have to wait and hope for an identification.
To be continued.
*Details: My Father’s injury was not combat related. He was wearing gear (web belt, canteen, etc.) when someone in his unit started tossing a football around during a lull in preparations. Dad dove to catch a pass and landed on his canteen, fracturing a vertebrae. He wound up in a field hospital for a few weeks until they were sure he could function without any limitations. Then they sent him into the fray. Tough crowd.