Courtesy of Washington College Magazine: Winter 2001
WWII Pilot Returns Home
Army First Lieutenant Henry C. Lewis Jr. ’39, a World War II pilot shot down over France, had been missing in action for more than half a century. He was lost on December 11, 1944, when his B-24 bomber, returning from a bombing run over Germany, crashed into a thickly-wooded area near Zinswiller, just a few miles from the German border.
No one ever knew what became of the young pilot from the tiny hamlet of Centreville on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the years that followed, his wife, Catherine, would eventually remarry; his two daughters, one of whom he had never seen, would grow up not knowing their father. Still, they lived with the shadow of a man who never returned from war.
The Lewis family finally received closure this summer. Fifty-seven years after his plane was lost, Lewis’s body was recovered and returned home. Using DNA samples, the military positively identified his remains, and those of seven of the eight missing airmen who accompanied him. Commingled remains of the pilot and his crew were buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery. Lewis was then returned to his hometown for a full military burial service.
Lewis, who had been a day student at Washington College, joined the National Guard and then trained as a bomber pilot with the Army Air Corps. He had been stationed at Tibenham, England, with the 445th Bomb Group. He had been flying missions for just three months when he went missing.
His classmate, Madison Bordley ’38, remembers that day vividly. The two were very close friends and kept up with one another after graduation. Lewis would visit Bordley in Baltimore on weekends. Then they both joined the armed services.
“He went in the Army; I went in the Navy,” Bordley recalls. “He went to England; I was in the Southwest Pacific. We were both planning to be home at the same time. Then I got to San Francisco and found out he had been shot down. It ruined my time at home, because I only had a month off, and I was assigned to go to England. And I knew he was gone.”
Investigators found remains of parachutes still folded in the wreckage, indicating the plane went down so fast no one was able to jump to safety. It is conjectured that he and the eight-man crew died in a mid-air collision with another bomber in dense fog. The plane apparently nose-dived into the ground and exploded on impact. With the war raging around them, local residents made no effort to locate the site of the downed plane. It was not until 1997 that French nationalists discovered the site and began excavations to recover parts of the plane and remains of the crew.
The mystery for the Lewis family began unraveling in 1998, when Sandy Lewis Metz visited her husband’s relatives in France. She and husband Henry were in the area of Haguenan and Strasbourg, not knowing that the excavation of her father’s plane was taking place just 50 kilometers away, just outside the village of Zinswiller. Joseph Mannheim, one of the French relatives, later sent the family pictures of a memorial erected in Zinswiller, commemorating the U.S. airplane and its crew. Bernard Huntzinger, the Frenchman organizing the erection of the commemorative monument, had set the recovery into motion in 1995 when he answered an inquiry from a relative of one of Lewis’s crew members. The American government was notified and full-scale operations were launched to identify the plane and crew.
Lewis’s daughter Nancy says the family is grateful to the Army for taking such care to bring her father home, and to the people at the Arlington National Cemetery for their thoughtful and dignified care. “It was a shock at first, of course, but we were very pleased. We were notified in 1999 and we waited patiently. We had a lot of time to think about it. If the crash site had been discovered years earlier, before DNA testing was available, we would never have had a clue.”
He was buried with full military honors just two weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, his daughter notes. “After September 11th, we realize again how much sacrifice is worth. That was 57 years ago. And now, here we are again.”
LEWIS, HENRY C JR
- 1ST LT US ARMY
- WORLD WAR II
- DATE OF BIRTH: 01/15/1917
- DATE OF DEATH: 12/11/1944
- BURIED AT: SECTION 60 SITE 8024
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard