Woman embarks on quest to learn about grandfather, his last WWII mission

Named for Army aviation pioneer and advocate General William 'Billy' Mitchell, the B-25 Mitchell carried an aircrew of 5: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and an engineer/gunner.<br>U.S. Army Military History Institute/WWII Signal Corps Collection
Named for Army aviation pioneer and advocate General William 'Billy' Mitchell, the B-25 Mitchell carried an aircrew of 5: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and an engineer/gunner.

Holly Mead can’t bring back her grandfather, an athletic and handsome pilot who died so long ago that even Mead’s mother — the aviator’s only child — never met him.

But ever since a near-obsession overtook over Mead’s life upon her discovery that a dog-tag or similar war artifact bearing her grandfather’s name — Benton F. Eichorn — was found late last year in Italy, he has come alive to her. Not only he, but the entire crew of his bomber, downed by German anti-aircraft fire in June 1944.

“All these guys were so young,” said Mead, an artist and clothing designer in Santa Rosa who’s suddenly feeling old at 35. Her late grandfather was but 21 when he died; the oldest man aboard his plane was 24.

Mead knew a bit about her grandfather, nothing else about the others, when she received an invitation just months ago to come to Tuscany this June. Her mother will travel with her to accept the ID tag and to help a small World War II museum to honor Eichorn and his crew.

“All these men are heroes to me,” Mead said during a break in her quest to learn more about her grandfather and his final mission, and to locate and contact relatives of the five crewmen who perished along with him, and of the one who survived.

Mead launched the research project not long after she received an e-mail in January from Denise Eichorn, a cousin in Arizona. The cousin told Mead she’d been contacted through Facebook by an Italian woman who helps to operate a World War II historical society and museum in north-central Italy.

The Italian, Lisa Nannini, told Denise Eichorn through online messages that members of the group have researched the crash of a flak-disabled warplane in the village of Poggiole, northwest of Florence, on June 7, 1944.

That was one day after D-Day, the launch of the Allied invasion of German-occupied France, and four days after the Allies’ taking of Rome caused German troops to fall back to the fortified Gothic Line across northern Italy.

Nannini informed Denise Eichorn that members of her historical society — Linea Gotica Alta Val di Bisenzio — had located fragments of the plane downed in ’44.

Their research confirmed that it was a twin-engine North American B-25 Mitchell bomber assigned to the 12th Air Force’s 379th Bomb Squadron, 310th Bomb Group, and it was piloted by a 1st lieutenant named Benton F. Eichorn.

Nannini found the pilot’s niece on Facebook and told her that she and her colleagues have created a museum exhibit on the B-25. And they were thrilled when a hunter brought in something he found last December in the woods near Poggiole.

Nannini refers to it as “platelet” bearing Lt. Eichorn’s name. It is quite likely one of the pilot’s identification tags.

Nannini told Denise Eichorn the Italian group now has prepared a book on the B-25 and its crew, history and fatal mission. Nannini then invited Eichorn to come to Italy on June 7 for a 70th-year commemoration and the release of the book — and to bring along other relatives of 1st Lt. Eichorn.

Denise Eichorn shared that invitation with her cousin Mead, and soon the Santa Rosan and Nannini were trading e-mails, too. Mead said she assumed that the Italians had located relatives of other of the crewmen, but she learned from Nannani that they had not.

So she offered to put her Internet skills and curiosity to work searching for family of the one crewman who survived the downing — tail gunner Wilmer H. Hochstatter — and the five who perished along with her grandfather.

They were co-pilot William M. Everett Jr., navigator Simon L. Sawyer, bombardier Frank R. Wargo and gunners Donald F. Ney and Raymond F. Thompson.

“I felt it was my duty to honor these men,” Mead said.

For about the past three months, she has scoured Ancestry.com and other Internet sites, yearbooks, newspaper archives, phone books and public records in search of anyone related to them. Discovering that lone survivor Hochstatter was the only crewman other than her grandfather to bear children, she looked for aged siblings and nieces and nephews.

The detective work has been exhausting but also rewarding, and rather fun.

“I’m kind of like a Nancy Drew,” Mead said.

She has come up with family members — mostly, nephews or nieces, grand-nephews or grand-nieces — of Hochstatter, who died in Illinois as a 48-year-old war veteran, and four of the five other crewmen.

She has struck out, but not given up, on identifying kin of Ney, who was from the Detroit area.

Mead has told all the family members about the work of the historical society in Italy, and its book and June 7 commemoration. At this point, she said, two children of Hochstatter plan to be at the book-release celebration in Tuscany and a grand-nephew of Everett hopes to arrange to attend.

Mead will accompany cousin Denise Eichorn and her husband. The Santa Rosan will travel with one other person as well.

It’s her mother, Diane deFord of Vacaville. Born in Southern California in January of 1944, she wasn’t yet five months old when the valiant, young father she’d never met came to rest in the countryside of northern Italy.

Her daughter said all the recent research and renewed interest is bringing him alive to deFord, too, and she wouldn’t for the world miss the opportunity to be where her father was exactly 70 years ago.

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