In the second e-mail I got from Roland Domanig two years ago, September 9, 2012 – after my terse reply to the first one asking that he verify his identity, he wrote:
I assure that all is OK with me. One
Identity you see on my mentor’s homepage Keith Bullock
. . . .
In short sentences: but more to follow
We visited your father’s crashite.
The first photo Roland sent of the location of dad’s P-51 crash site on Übeltal Glacier
I looked up, turned my head to the window, and said, “What the hell is a crashite?” The e-mail continued:
We/I assume you are his daughter, as you delivered all info in your blog “Spittin Grits”, we had either [earlier?]. So there was 100% correspondence.
Could Lt. John T. Cravey be STILL WITH US? Was our question on tour when
Talking about this pilot.
Again I looked up and said, “Does he mean ‘crash site’? That’s impossible.”
Yet here we were. Here to see dad’s crash site, but driving back to Innsbruck, wasting a day, to pick up the infernal Hertz car. I used the time to ask questions.
“Roland, tell me again what motivated you to get so involved in finding and researching crash sites?” I was madly writing in my journal as we drove.
Roland laughed. I had asked this questions several times over the past two years of being in constant communication. It was clear that he spent a lot of time and energy (and probably money) on this “hobby.” A toll booth was coming up. He kept his eyes on the road. While talking and asking questions, I tried to look at the surroundings as we drove the Brenner Pass on a sunny day. A tunnel was coming up.
“For our or all ancestors we do this research as hobby. And we are happy if we find interested living -- and loving -- people to talk with them about this crash,” explained Roland. “Sometime we find crash survivor.”
I turned back to the scenery. There’s no way to get a clean sense of going through this pass, I thought to myself. Autobahn traffic. Speeds. Toll booths and 18-wheelers, four lanes on both the north- and south-bound sides. It’s about all your eyes can send to your brain.
“How did you get started?” I asked.
Then I thought to myself, you’re crossing over the Alps, dummy. Pay attention. My mind flashed with the memory of driving downward out of Glacier National Park in 1958 on our reassignment trip to Alaska. Winding downward at such a steep angle scared me. Living in Alaska for three years cured that. This brain flash directed me to dad, who was driving that downward spiral Glacier road: What would he think of this trip to see his crash site? How would he feel? How would he have felt when first getting the news it had been found? By Anton Volgger, of all people? (Anton’s connection with dad’s story will come later.)
Anton (l) and a colleague at the debris field on of dad’s P-51 on Übeltal Glacier
“There,” said Roland, bringing me back to the Pass. “Mountain of dolomite. That is.” My sister Susan and I had wanted to visit The Dolomites, wherever exactly they are.
Off to the right, as if iced with white glitter-glue, the entire mountain glistened in the sun. What a sight, I thought. I guessed that it was some kind of marble or mineral. Suddenly this morning’s vision of Zuckerhutl in the unimpeded sunshine raced through my mind. I’ve got to practice remembering that sight, I thought.
Now I saw that there were many mountains of dolomite, all glistening, but it must be different from The Dolomites dad and mom talked about, and how beautiful they were. Yes, they’re different, I discovered. The Dolomites are located south of Roland’s hometown of Lienz, Austria, into Italy toward Bolzano.
Roland broke the reverie. “You see, interest happened when my aunt once told me about her experience with a going down bomber aiming at her house and almost making a victim of that crash. That bomber crashed near my town Lienz,” he explained. “That was 1999. I started research then after talking to mentor Keith Bullock. Anton knows about six crash sites; I do about 20.”
We were nearing Innsbruck. We were to meet Jakob Mayer, whom we had met at the Innsbruck train station. Jakob is, with Roland, in the inner circle of the crash site archaeologists, researchers, and historians who mentored under Keith Bullock.
After coffee, again at the Europa Hotel and after I picked up the car, we drove west to the outskirts of town to visit the crash site of B-17 “Priority Gal.” Jakob had been the moving force behind establishing a bronze plaque at the site in honor of the Flying Fortress’s pilot. The site was located on a slope of the mountain where events at the Innsbruck 2002 Winter Olympics were held. Jakob gave me a copy of the astonishing 2006 story published in a New Jersey newspaper.
Below: Jakob Mayer and myself at the Priority Gal crashsite
This B-17 Flying Fortress had taken flak over Munich. Two engines (out of only four) were on fire. Pilot Lt. Henry Supchak decided to aim for Switzerland rather than go down in Nazi territory. Over Innsbruck, still a long way from Switzerland, the plane took more flak. The crew couldn’t put out the fire in one engine, and flames were aiming for a fuel tank. Supchak ordered everyone to bail. Right then! The Priority Gal went into a nose dive. Centrifugal force pinned him down, keeping him from bailing. Then a sudden updraft righted the plane momentarily. He looked out and saw that Priority Gal was aimed directly at the town. In a split second he decided to trim the plane to far left, then jump. Priority Gal crashed on the outskirts, thereby saving the town and inhabitants, but wounding a small boy and his aunt as it crashed.
Supchak’s quick decision had also saved his crew members, but their ordeal was not over. They all spent the remainder of the war in two Nazi POW camps, including dad’s at Moosburg near Munich, where they and 80,000 other POWs would be liberated by George Patton’s troops April 29, 1945.
The story of the pilot of Priority Gal was legend in Innsbruck. His story didn’t end there either, thanks to Jakob Mayer.
At last, during the mid- to late 1990s and early 2000s, locked gates opened wide on the Internet. Quickly evolving technology sent unimaginable quantities of data to flow to the World Wide Web, allowing the internet to begin doing what it does best: opening new knowledge to the World. For so many researchers like Roland and Jakob and for many families like Henry Supchak’s, that accumulation of information could bring into the light some unknown corners and unanswered questions of World War II. Some stories would bring families and friends sadness, but closure; for others, joy at finally learning the real events and real roles played by their loved one, still living or dead, who helped bring an end to Hitler’s unspeakable ideas and actions.
Legends could become real.
Mayer was scouring the Internet about 2002, looking for the pilot of Priority Gal. About the same time across the Atlantic in New Jersey, Supchak’s daughter, Liz S. Hoban, had begun research on her father. Touchdown. Hoban and Mayer found each other in 2006.
At age 90, Supchak welcomed Jakob Mayer into his home in New Jersey and learned of the plaque and his legendary status. He reportedly said to Mayer, “You’ve added a new dimension to my life. Your communication with me has done more for me than you know.”
A year later Supchak traveled to Innsbruck to rededicate the plaque with his name on it. At that time he learned the rest of the story of the wounded little boy, Ander Haas: He grew up to be a successful hotelier, and he erected a plaque in Supchak’s honor at the foot of his hotel near the crash site.
Priority Gal, an American Flying Fortress, on the outskirts of Innsbruck
After returning home to New Jersey, Supchak, with his daughter Elizabeth Hoban, wrote a book, “The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot, and a World at War” available on line and in public libraries.
Roland had met Jakob in 2002 after reading in a news account about his research of a crash site; then he guided Jakob to mentor and researcher Keith Bullock. Jakob already knew about Anton Volgger and his trip to the crash site of dad’s P-51 Mustang in 1995, after which documents were lost for about six years. After Jakob introduced Roland to Anton; together they went to dad’s crash site on Übeltal Glacier. Then it took six or eight more years of researching the internet to find me at Spittin’ Grits.
Much earlier, in 1965 or so, an Italian man heard rumors of a crash site where he was living; then he heard a second rumor about a “war tragedy” having occurred as well. These rumors stuck in the “item of interest” area of his brain for more than thirty years. Then in 1999 he, Giorgio Pietrobon, found a record of the disaster in a Parish book. His “activity as an aeronautical researcher” had begun, he says in his book, “B-24 Sandman.”
Next: The story of the B-24 Sandman, one of the most iconic USAAF planes in World War II. See more images here.