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In 1944, the town of West Plains was dealt a serious blow when it received word from the War Department that one of its brightest and most promising young men had gone missing after his B-17 Bomber fell out of formation on a mission over Germany. But his family never learned all of the details of his presumed death, and his body was never accounted for…until now, that is. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has this story.
Reporter standup: “I’m standing right now in the Oak Lawn Cemetery in West Plains, and right before me is a modest grave marker that simply reads ‘John E. Hogan, Died in Action.’ It has a pair of wings and a propeller engraved on it. But this grave is empty—the stone is nothing more than a marker to remember the young soldier who had hopes of finishing up his time at the University of Missouri and going onto graduate school to become a field biologist.
Now, nearly 70 years after Hogan’s plane went down over Germany, the Department of Defense says his remains have finally been found and his relatives notified.”
“John and I grew up on the tail end of the horse and buggy days. I don’t mean there weren’t cars—there were. But there were also an awful lot of horses and people comin’ to town in horse-drawn wagons,” says Jack McNevin. He served in the Marines in WWII, and he played football with John Hogan in high school.
The two young men graduated in 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their futures had a cloud of ambiguity hanging over them.
“We all knew in 1941—December in 1941—we all knew that, sooner or later, everybody who was eligible was going to go [into the service],” he said.
McNevin recalls being stationed in the Pacific theatre with his fellow Marines when he heard the news about his former classmate.
“I just remember that in one of the letters my mom wrote, she just said that they’d gotten word that John Hogan’s plane was shot down, and he was missing, and presumed dead,” McNevin said.
It was September of 1944. All the Army was able to confirm was that Hogan’s B-17, on which he was a gunner, fell out of formation on a mission over Germany. Hogan’s plane was never seen or heard from again by his squadron. The squadron had come under anti-aircraft fire on its bombing mission on the oil refineries of Merseburg. One crewmember parachuted out and became a POW; the rest were presumed dead.
Nine years later, his parents received a letter from the Department of the Army telling them that an American investigation had searched for their son’s body in cemeteries in Belgium, France and Germany.
The letter reads:
“After a careful review of all of the pertinent facts in this case, and the negative results of the investigations, the Department of the Army has been forced to conclude that the remains of your loved one are not recoverable...May the knowledge of your son’s honorable service to his country be a source of sustaining comfort to you.”
Fast forward to the 1990s. Jessica Pierno is a spokeswoman at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or the DPMO.
“In 1991, a German citizen was digging a grave in a cemetery for one of his own family members. And as he was doing his work, he discovered a metal identification tag that was from a US soldier,” she said.
Those dog tags were handed over to German officials, and the American government was notified. But due to what she calls "a lot of red tape" surrounding German law on graves, it took 17 years before US investigators could bring up the remains.
“They were able to excavate that entire site, and recover remains from what we believe to be the rest of the crew members,” Pierno said.
US investigators contacted John Hogan’s relative and asked for a DNA sample. It was a match, confirming that his remains had finally been positively identified. Now, US government is able to confirm that four of the eight missing crew members have been identified through DNA.
John Hogan was the brother of the late Judge Robert E. Hogan, who sat for many years on the bench at the Missouri Court of Appeals in Springfield, and the cousin of the late Springfield businessman, Jack Hogan, of the Hogan Land Title Company.
Today, Judge Hogan’s son, Ed Hogan, is a neurologist with Washington University in Saint Louis.
“I do know my family was close. I do know how hard that was for them to give up one of their family members—for my dad and his brother. I’m very appreciative that things have come up, and that we know, and that they’ve brought his remains back. I just really wish it would have happened when my dad was still alive,” Hogan says.
John Hogan made up to 15 bombing missions over Europe on the B-17, the “Flying Fortress.” It was the main bomber used by the Americans over Nazi Germany.
Another man who knew Hogan in high school is Joe Spears, also of West Plains. He, too, was a gunner on the B-17 in the European theatre.
“We were kind of a cocky group. We had had it drilled into us that we were invincible. That was before we discovered that we weren’t,” he says.
Spears and Hogan didn’t fly together—Spears was based in southern Italy, and Hogan in England. But Spears says the crewmembers of a B-17 respected each other tremendously, and boy, did they revere their airplane.
“I went to Wright Patterson Air Museum in Dayton, Ohio. And one of the attendants at the Museum told me it was not unusual for an older person to come in and put his arms around the B-17 and cry like a baby. Because it was…there I go again…you can’t explain it. We swore by them,” Spears says, holding back tears.
He says the sight of 28 B-17 Bombers flying in formation was an “awesome sight,” that the planes could come in full of gaping holes and still make a perfect landing. The B-17 flew at an altitude close to 30,000 feet, he says.
“We wore silk gloves under our electric, heated gloves, so that if you had to yank your glove off to work on a gun, your hand wouldn’t freeze to the metal. If you didn’t have the silk glove on, it would freeze…absolutely freeze. And when you pulled it off, you left the skin. And we wore all of the clothes we could get on, and were still cold,” Spears recalls.
John Hogan’s parents and brothers never did learn what happened to his body. Jack McNevin worked with John’s mother in the West Plains post office.
“I do remember her. She was a very quiet woman, a very attractive woman. And she never did recover, completely, from not knowing where my boy is,” McNevin said.
The DPMO estimates that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War Two, 73,000 of them are still unaccounted for.
But John Hogan has just been marked off that list. 68 years after his young body shipped out to war, it will finally be returning stateside; he’s scheduled to be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in August with full military honors.
For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.