The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced on October 11, despite the current partial federal government shutdown, that the remains of an American aviator are being returned to his family for burial. 1st Lieutenant Robert G. Fenstermacher, who was shot down during the Second World War, will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery on October 18.
Lieutenant Fenstermacher, a native of Scranton PA, was just 23 years old when he paid the greatest price in service to his country. It was on December 26, 1944, while National Socialist Germany was making a final and initially successful counter-offensive in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Fenstermacher was piloting a P-47D Thunderbolt – which was perhaps the apogee of the development of propeller-driven fighter planes - that was on an armed-reconnaissance mission against targets in Germany. It was on a snowy and largely over cast day that his aircraft crashed, near Petergensfeld, Belgium.
According to DoD, a U.S. military officer reported seeing Fenstermacher’s Thunderbolt crash. Reaching the site shortly after impact, the officer was able to recover Fenstermacher’s identification tags from the burning wreckage. No remains or aircraft wreckage was recovered from the crash site then. Fenstermacher was declared killed in action and a marker was eventually placed in his memory in a U.S. cemetery.
After the end of the conflict, a team from the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service (AGRS) investigated and interviewed a local Belgian woman who told them that an aircraft crashed into the side of her house. The team searched the surrounding area, but was unsuccessful locating the crash site.
Nearly seventy years later, a group of local historians excavated a private yard in Petergensfeld in 2012. It was there that they discovered human remains and aircraft wreckage consistent with a P-47D Thunderbolt. The remains were turned over to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) at DoD. Forensic scientists at JPAC used both circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as dental comparisons. They found a match with Fenstermacher’s records.
The record shows that Lt. Fenstermacher earned the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Clusters after flying in at least 57 missions, his last at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Investigations showed little else after his P-47 Thunderbolt went down over Germany. The lieutenant was added to the list of tens of thousands lost and never recovered. There were more than 400,000 American service members killed during WWII, and the remains of more than 73,000 were never recovered or identified.
The winter of 1944-45 in Belgium was one of the coldest on record. Allied and German troops on the ground, fighting in the Ardennes forest that borders Germany, waded through deep snow and sometimes froze to death. On the day that the Battle of the Bulge began, December 16, the mercury dropped to 14 degrees Fahrenheit at 5:30 a.m. as German troops back by panzers and artillery paid the American lines a visit.
Lt. Fenstermacher was in the air on an armed reconnaissance mission, ten days into the battle that was to be Adolf Hitler’s last-gasp offensive. He flew his Thunderbolt towards Houffalize, Belgium, to attack a train station near Roetgen, Germany. But even after all of his combat flights and decorations, it was to be his last time aloft. Unfortunately, Fenstermacher and his fellow aviators had received unreliable intelligence. The German train station had already been captured by Allied forces. So it was that Fenstermacher was shot down in the fog of war. According to later media reports, Fenstermacher was shot down by friendly fire. According to the Scranton Times-Tribune, Michael Mee, Chief of Identifications of the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch, which is part of the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, Fenstermacher “had bad information in the air.”
The Battle of the Bulge was the largest land battle fought by the United States during World War II and in the history of the Army. British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill hailed it as “undoubtedly, the greatest American battle of the war, and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory,” he said. After his plane was lost, Fenstermacher was listed as missing in action. The War Department told his mother the classification had been changed to killed in action on May 2, 1945.
Fenstermacher had been heading for Houffalize, Belgium, but his plane crashed about 40 miles northeast, in the Belgian town of Petergensfeld, less than a mile from Roetgen,Germany.
Volunteers from a group called History Flight, which rebuilds historic aircraft and searches for aviators’ remains, examined a number of possible sites of Fenstermacher’s crash. For example, the wing of Fenstermacher’s aircraft struck a Belgian home, which burned to the ground. Today, another home has been rebuilt in its place, using original stone in the foundation, that is owned by Monica and Klaus Loeher.
The Loehers’ cooperated with the History Flight volunteers, who used the couple’s garage for the investigation. The excavators found.50 caliber guns, a piece of a dog tag chain, what may be fragments of the lieutenant’s cap.
Joining the Loehers’ at the October 18 final interment at Arlington for Lieutenant Fenstermacher, will be Bob Fenstermacher, who is the last living relative to remember the fallen aviator. Bob was only three years old when he last saw the lieutenant who was shipping overseas. Also on hand will be members of History Flight, a Florida-based nonprofit group of volunteer archaeologists, historians and others who work with the U.S. military to findings of investigations and to locate relatives of deceased aviators. After they had begun restoring WWII planes, History Flight began to seek out the missing in action and seek out their survivors.