More than 70 years after he died when his fighter plane was shot down over northern France just before the D-Day invasion, 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas is finally accounted for.
Fazekas’ plane, a P-47 Thunderbolt, was shot down by German soldiers in May 1944. His body was never recovered and he was listed as missing — until the work of a small UW-Madison team that searches for missing soldiers found and excavated the crash site in northern France in 2016 and this past year.
Now, after more than seven decades, his remains are set to be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in March.
“This is the culmination of decades of thoughts, wishes to have him have a proper burial,” said Dr. Ryan Wubben, a member of UW-Madison’s Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project and director of UW Med Flight. “It was an incredibly powerful and meaningful moment.”
Fakezas was among the tens of thousands of missing U.S. military personnel since World War II and is now the second missing World War II soldier the UW-Madison group has found and positively identified.
An Army Air Forces pilot from New Jersey, Fazekas was just 22 years old and likely on a reconnaissance mission over northern France when he was shot down by the Germans on May 27, 1944, just days before the Allied invasion of the Nazi-occupied country.
An eyewitness, who was a young boy at the time and lived on a nearby farm, led members of the UW-Madison team to the crash site in a farm field near the village of Buysscheure.
After two summers of excavations, coordinating with local French officials and U.S. military personnel and sifting through dirt and digging trenches up to 18 feet deep in clay, Fazekas’ body was officially identified with the wreckage late this past summer.
After the first summer, the team uncovered some remnants of the plane, including some of its machine guns. The serial numbers matched the numbers tied to the plane, leading the team to believe they had found Fazekas’ plane among the many other American, British, French or German crash sites in the area.
This year’s follow-up mission, requested by the U.S. government, confirmed it was Fazekas’ plane.
“It was honorable, it was emotional, it was exhausting,” said Charles Konsitzke, a member of the team and associate director of UW-Madison’s Biotechnology Center.
Fazekas had a young son, only months old at the time of the crash, also named Frank. His son joined the effort in the summer of 2016 to help the group sift through clay and dirt.
“For him to stand there on the edge of the crater we had excavated was huge for all of us because it brought it full circle for why we were doing this,” Wubben said.
The two-year effort was paid for by the Department of Defense and through a grant from UW-Madison.
Many still missing
While the team was glad to bring closure to Fazekas’ family, Wubben said the positive identification was “just a drop in the bucket” of the thousands of U.S. military personnel still missing from combat.
Fazekas is among the more than 82,000 service members missing from combat since World War II. The U.S. Department of Defense recovers and identifies only about 70 of those missing soldiers every year, a 2013 Government Accountability Office report found.
The UW-Madison team hopes its second recovery will be followed by many more.
In its first recovery, the team helped to identify U.S. Army Pfc. Lawrence S. Gordon using DNA.
Gordon had been mistakenly buried among unidentified German soldiers in a German cemetery in France after he was killed by Germans in August of 1944.
During the second mission, the UW-Madison team partnered with the Department of Defense to recover the body — the first partnership of its kind.
After seeing how successful it was to work with colleges and universities, Wubben said the federal government is expanding its search efforts to include several other institutions of higher education.
“They need all the help they can get,” Wubben said.
The government can benefit from working with universities because they have such a wide range of expertise — from forensic anthropology to history — that prove useful for search and recovery efforts, Wubben said.
What started out as a small group of people doing work in their spare time is poised to evolve into a larger effort.
Members are waiting for their next assignment from the Department of Defense, Konsitzke said, adding that he’d like to someday focus on finding missing Wisconsin military members.
“This isn’t our day job. This is what we do during lunchtime or in our down time,” Konsitzke said. “We’re hoping the project develops into more.”
The group currently has three core members, but in the Fazekas case, more than a dozen forensics experts, anthropologists, UW-Madison students and other academics from across the U.S. helped out.
Wubben, who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, said he hopes the group can evolve into something more sustainable, growing to include full-time staff. He said he likes the work because it’s a way to honor soldiers who are still missing.
“This gives me an outlet by which I can maybe give something back,” Wubben said. “It’s an interesting mystery but at the end of the day it boils down to the families and giving something back. They made the ultimate sacrifice and were never recovered.”