Charlie Stalnaker's Letter to His Uncle, Lt. Harold Stalnaker...

April, 2004

To Uncle Harold.

A letter from now to then.

Dear Uncle Harold:

It is with deepest regrets and sympathy that I must inform you that you didn't return home after World War II.  I am your brother's son, Charles, and I was informed in the fall of 2003 that your remains had been found and are to be returned to Arlington National Cemetery for burial.

As your closest living relative, I am making the arrangements and will have the honor of being presented the flag at your services.  You are to have services at the Fort Myers Chapel, 1300 hours, May 7th, to include a marching band, horse-drawn caisson, and a military flyover.  Honors befitting a fighter pilot killed in WWII while flying your P47-D and one who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross posthumously.

How did this happen you may ask?  Well, as many things do these days, it started with a phone message.  The Department of the Army called, requesting an appointment to meet with me and other family members to discuss the events which led to your death and how to prepare for the Arlington ceremony.

It was there, at my mom's house in Hummelstown, PA that we had the meeting. You see, your brother (my father) Charles, married Grace Richards.  My mother and a few other relatives were in attendance to receive the government representative, Johnny Johnson.

It was Johnny who gave us many of the details surrounding your death.  However, since that meeting I have, via a new research tool called the internet, contacted many people who knew you, including Elmer "Bob" Brown and Lt. Dominic Coppolino.  This tool has allowed me to search the world and fill in some answers to questions we all have.  This is what we think happened over the skies of Kehlen, Luxembourg on December 23rd, 1944 during what we now refer to as the Battle of the Bulge.

We know that you had successfully flown over 90 missions and wanted to reach the 100 mission mark so that you could return home to marry your fiancée back in Spencer, WV, Emelene.  We think that this is one of the reasons why you didn't take that 72-hour pass to Paris and instead, elected to be "White Flight" leader on that cold day before Christmas Eve.  We also know that you desperately wanted letters from home and that my Grandmother and Aunts were not too keen on writing.  That is why I am writing this letter to you, in the hopes that you can somehow read it and it can make up for our family's lack of correspondence.  Everyone that I have told this story to has wanted to write to you. I decided that I would take the chance that, as the saying goes, "'s never too late."

So perhaps you were, at age 21, desperately trying to fight off being homesick and being away from the girl you loved.  By the way, when your brother died, Emelene came up to Sharon, your niece, at the funeral services.  She told Sharon that she was happily married with grown children, but that she never really got over you.  I have tried to contact her to tell her of your desire to get home to her, but I am about a year too late.  Perhaps you have now told her yourself or she will see this letter and understand.

According to Bob Brown, you were one of the first pilots to use napalm and had to learn how to drop it.  He said that you literally had to fly so low that you scraped it off on the enemy target.  I don't know if that is what you were carrying on that successful bombing of Germany, but I do know that you were looking for targets of opportunity for your eight 50-caliber machine guns as you returned to your airfield in France.

Apparently, Capt. Hillis was on your left wing with Lt. Coppolino off your right wing when Coppy spotted a flight of two to six P47s approaching from your 5 o'clock position.  He informed you and you acknowledged their presence.  Now, I don't know why, but your commanding officer had your squadron paint your Jug tails orange. This was supposedly to let the Germans know that the 358th Fighter Group, 366th Fighter Squadron was the group doing the damage.  We do know that the Germans had captured some P47s to stage mock dogfights for the benefit of the Luftwaffe.  So this is perhaps why one of the converging P47s pulled within 200 yards of you, mis-identified you, and shot you in the cockpit, thus accomplishing what the Germans could not.

You were a victim of what the report states: "friendly fire".  As a friend of mine from London said: "you Yanks were always quick on the trigger."

Captain Hillis said that you slumped forward and your plane went into a vertical dive, crashing into the mud near the small town of Kehlen.  Coppy went after and fired at one of the P47s. We believe it was that Jug that crashed near your site and close to the Castle of Ansembourg.  The pilot survived.  I called and spoke with him about these events but he understandably doesn't remember much about that day.  I also can't seem to find crash reports about him. I apologize for not being more diligent.

Many of the Kehlen villagers went to the crash site, finding shell casings, some coins and human remains.  They buried the remains near your plane and these are what will be interred at Arlington.  Much of you will not be leaving that field in Luxembourg after nearly 60 years. The government did conduct an investigation into your crash that day but unfortunately understood the villagers to say that your plane burned for 30 hours when they meant only 3 hours.  The investigator believed that no remains could have survived the heat of a 30-hour fire so they determined that your remains were unrecoverable.  That is why your name appears on the Wall of Missing at the Luxembourg Cemetery. This is about 20 paces from General Patton's gravesite.  He passed away about a year after you.

Once your men learned of your downing, you will be happy to learn, they held a beer party but, according to the microfilm report, it was very subdued.  Apparently you were liked and admired by the enlisted and they took your death hard as you were one of the few senior pilots.

Due to the reports filed about your crash, no one thought to look for your remains, until 1991 when local excavators uncovered your plane.  Raymond Hoffmann, a Luxembourg native, took the time to remove the majority of your Jug.  He sent the engine to the Battle of the Bulge Museum in Clervaux, Luxembourg. The propellers are missing but I saw photos of them and it appears that your plane did go in almost vertically.

Not a lot occurred until 2002 when a Luxembourg Army Adjutant named John Derneden identified the crash site and the possible pilot.  He contacted the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) and they took a team to Kehlen to excavate your crash site.  They treated this very much as an archaeological dig and found your remains.  This started the whole repatriation process that our family has embraced.

I had the good fortune to visit your crash site and meet with the mayor of Kehlen.  While there I presented him with a copy of the CILHI report for the local school library.  Raymond Hoffmann gave me a valve from your downed plane while the Luxembourg newspapers and television filmed the event. I am amazed and humbled at the wonderful treatment and how thankful the Luxembourg people are to the U.S. soldiers that liberated them from Hitler's armies.

The visit to the Luxembourg Cemetery and the reception there was also an eye opener. Not just for the graves and names on the Wall of Missing, but also for the number of visitors there on a blustery cold day in December of 2003.  From there we were off to see the Battle of the Bulge Museum at the village of Clervaux in northern Luxembourg.  The curator there was most informative and I am attempting to get a replica of your dress uniform for him to exhibit.

Once back in the States, we went to Colorado Springs to the Peterson Museum to observe the restoration of the P47N, their ongoing project.  The curator there was most kind and was fascinated by your story. 

To end this, I will have to say that I am now 55 years old and consider the men who fought in WWII recent history but certainly real "men".  To read through your report and see the profile of you as a young 21-year-old Lieutenant who weighed about 160 lbs, hailing from Spencer, WV, going to war for the U.S. and its allies as a flight leader in a 10-ton plane, known as a "flying tank", loaded with weapons, gives me a whole new respect for the young men and women who serve today and go in harm's way.

The entire Stalnaker family is proud of you and wish that you had returned alive. Your contribution to the war in Europe is appreciated by so many that I can't begin to tell you. We wish that you could be here to see the dedication of the new World War II Memorial in June of this year, but then that is only one more wish unfulfilled.

With fondness, appreciation, regrets and most of all with love,

The entire Stalnaker Family
You make us proud.

"In Flanders Fields"
By:  Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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POB 4907, Laguna Beach, California 92652 USA