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Santa Rosa woman helps honor bomber crew 70 years later

It’s a small, cheap, distorted piece of stamped metal. But how it and the odyssey triggered by its discovery have altered Holly Mead’s life.

The Santa Rosa artist is back home from the trip of a lifetime to the Tuscany region of northern Italy, where she was a VIP at the dedication of a grateful town’s new World War II memorial monument.

Mead, 35, brought back with her the little metal plate that she and her mother will treasure for the rest of their lives.

It’s the Army-issued dog tag that Mead’s grandfather, a young bomber pilot named Benton “Benny” Eichorn, wore when he died in the downing of a B-25 one day after D-Day in 1944. The dog tag apparently lay for 70 years precisely right where it fell, in woods near the town of Vernio.

Just last December, the ID tag caught the eye of a hunter named Alessio Baldini. “He found it crumpled into a ball,” Mead said.

Baldini unfurled it and, realizing what it was, took it to members of a small historical society and World War II museum in Vernio, about 20 miles northwest of Florence. A prominent part of the museum, created only two years ago, is an exhibit of fragments of the American bomber that slammed down and exploded in the woods in ‘44.

The aim of the Italian association, Linea Gotica Alta Val di Bisenzio, is to preserve the memory of those lost to the Allies’ bloody, northward slog from Sicily toward the defensive barrier the German military called Gotenstellung, or the Gothic Line. German forces were attempting to defend that line in Italy when history’s largest military invasion hit the beaches at France’s Normandy.

The hunter’s discovery of 1st Lt. Eichorn’s dog tag thrilled the president of the historical association, Lisa Nannini. She knew very little about the seven men aboard the twin-engine B-25, of whom only one survived the downing by German anti-aircraft fire.

But Internet research had revealed to Nannini that Eichorn was the pilot. And now she held in her hand a most personal artifact of his.

Early this year, Nannini set out to locate and notify the family of Eichorn of the discovery and to request personal and military information for a book she sought to write about the American bomber that crashed and blew up near her town.

Nannini searched for Eichorns on Facebook and messaged some, including Denise Eichorn Hathaway of Arizona. She and Sonoma County’s Mead, a graduate of Petaluma’s Casa Grande High School, are cousins.

Denise Hathaway alerted Mead to the discovery of her granddad’s dog tag. It was a bolt from the blue, stunning news.

“I never knew very much about by grandfather,” Mead said. He died at age 21 and even Mead’s mother, 70-year-old Diane deFord of Vacaville, the pilot’s daughter, never met him.

Mead eagerly contacted Nannini in Italy last January and offered to assist her book project with research not only on her late grandfather, but on all seven members of the crew.

Mead had to work fast. Nannini told her she hoped to have the book finished in time for a 70th anniversary commemoration of the crash on June 7 of this year. Nannini also implored Mead to come to Vernio and take part in the historic moment.

The Santa Rosan assured her that she would not miss it.

These past six months, Mead immersed herself in learning all she could about her grandfather and the men who served with him on the bomber downed by German antiaircraft fire near Vernio the day after D-Day. “It’s the only plane that went down in that area,” she said.

The primary goal of her consuming research project was to locate and contact family members of the crewmen and tell them of Vernio’s interest in honoring and memorializing their late loved ones. Some of the descendants she cold-called knew almost no particulars of the fate of the bomber and its crew, and were intensely grateful to learn.

For Mead, the experience of at last getting to know her late grandfather and connecting with survivors of his fallen buddies has been painful, healing and life-altering.

“I think it was the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Mead said. “And it probably will be the most important thing I ever do.”

Through months of searching the Internet, scouring phone books and public records, and running down leads, she made contact with relatives of five of the six men on Lt. Eichorn’s crew. She united a new family of people connected by blood-line to a bomber crash almost entirely unknown or forgotten in America but of intense interest in one thankful, formerly Nazi-occupied town in Italy.

Early in June, Mead traveled to Tuscany with her mother, her cousin from Arizona and her cousin’s husband. Members of the historical society and museum in Vernio also invited all other relatives of the crew of the B-25, but only the son and daughter of tailgunner Wilmer Hochstatter were able to make it.

Hochstatter, of Illinois, was the one crewman who survived the downing and disintegration of the bomber. He made it safely across Allied lines, survived the war and returned home. He died in the 1970s.

Mead served as an emissary for all of the relatives of crewmen who weren’t able to make it to Italy for the observances marking the 70th anniversary of the loss of the B-25 and most of its crew. She said the Italians treated her and the other visiting Americans like heroes, welcoming and feeding and touring them about that beautiful and forested part of their country.

“It’s just amazing, what they did for us,” Mead said. “They were so gracious, so grateful.”

On June 7, what the Italians call “The Day of Remembrance,” locals surprised the Americans by picking them up in four restored World War II jeeps. They were driven to near the place in the woods where the shattered bomber fell.

Mead said some young men from Vernio had spent about two weeks carving a hiking trail through the dense woods to the place where the largest fragment of the plane once lay. There, the mayor of Vernio, other dignitaries and members of the historical society dedicated a small monument with a plaque bearing the names of Benton Eichorn, Wilmer Hochstatter and the crewmen.

Addressing the ceremony in the woods on behalf of her family and all the crewmembers’ relatives who were unable to travel to Italy, Mead thanked the people of Vernio for honoring the seven young men who fell from the sky on Dec. 7, 1944.

The museum’s Nannini presented the Americans with copies of her new book, printed both in Italian and English and bearing the name of Holly Mead as co-author. And Nannini gave Mead and her mother the dog tag that Benny Eichorn wore.

Mead believes she has more to write about the explosive moment that occurred near Vernio 70 years ago, and about her grandfather and his war and his buddies and the place he came to rest at the age of just 21.

“It definitely doesn’t stop here,” she said.

chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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