BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) — Boxes of faded war letters paint a picture of the father Gretchen Wronka never knew. The Bloomington woman was only a baby when her dad last held her.
“He shipped off overseas in the fall 1944, so that’s when I was just nine months old,” Wronka said.
A book of her father’s poetry now warms her heart with each verse she reads. Gretchen looks at black and white photographs showing a handsome young man, so full of life.
Her father, Lt. Loren Hintz, was a P-47 fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying dangerous missions aimed at driving the Nazi’s from Italy.
It was a patriotic sacrifice which kept Loren from attending Gretchen’s first birthday, or later witnessing the gift of grandchildren.
Recalls Gretchen’s son, Hans, “Sometimes I’d ask my mom about it, ‘How come I don’t have a grandpa?’ She’d remind me, ‘You do, but grandpa died.'”
On April 21, 1945, Hintz and his 79th Fighter Group were attacking German positions around Bagnarola, Italy.
His 66th mission, one he’d volunteered for, would be Loren’s last.
“It was very symbolic the fact that he was killed on the very day Bologna had been liberated,” Wronka said.
A War Department telegram brought the bitter news to his widow in Iowa that Hintz was missing in action.
There was no funeral service for Hintz, his body was never returned stateside. For the next 71 years, his family had little else but photographs, letters and poetry.
Understand that in the closing days of the war, the military didn’t always devote the resources to recover a fallen soldier’s or an airman’s remains.
“Always being a curious person, I was wanting to see where the story went,” Hans said.
Hans began by searching the internet for his grandfather’s name. He was led to a reunion page for the 79th Fighter Group.
“So I just wrote something simple…does anyone out there know who Loren E. Hintz is?” Hans said.
He’d spend hours of his spare time digging through maps and old military records, looking for the slightest trace of evidence indicating where his grandfather was shot down.
Several years passed before he finally got the hit he’d been looking for. It came from a man in Bologna, Italy.
“By July 2012, I’m on a plane going to Italy with my wife and son. I’m like, we’re going,” Hans said.
He and his family went to the countryside around Bagnarola, Italy, where they continued piecing together the mysterious puzzle.
Unfortunately, they would soon return home without finding what they’d been looking for, Hintz’s final resting place.
Maps, photos and military records got them close, but still they couldn’t find the crash site.
That is, until the early days of July 2016.
Once again, they would board a jet and head back to an Italian countryside.
“Then came that eureka moment, when Pierro said we have a guy who was an eyewitness,” Hans said.
A man named Antonio was 12 years old at the time. He recalled seeing the plane crash in the distance and would lead Hans and his crew to the exact spot.
There, using ground penetrating sonar, they located what appeared to be a large mass of metal.
With the help of an archaeological team, they began digging. There, 16 feet under the Italian soil, they would locate fragmented pieces of what appeared to be an airplane.
Soon, Hans got a lump in his throat as the excavation revealed one of the plane’s .50-caliber machine guns.
Hans choked with emotion as he recalled, “This is too early. It’s only 15 minutes into the dig, and I can’t start tearing up already.”
Then came fragments of the P-47’s airframe, bullet casings and its massive 18 cylinder engine, mangled and still leaking oil.
Hans held up a shard of clear material and exclaimed, “That glass is what Loren was looking through.” It was a fragment of the cockpit windshield.
Suddenly, came the moment of truth as the excavation revealed, human bones and two discernible dog tags. On each was embossed, “Lt. Loren Hintz.”
“The people, everybody got a little quiet,” Hans said, adding, “I didn’t need to ask anybody what was on their minds. They were all thinking the same things.”
After 71 years, a family mystery was finally solved.
In a solemn ceremony at the crash site, the family held a memorial service, and the group of grateful Italians presented Hans and his family an American flag.
“I never could have dreamed of an experience like this,” Hans said. “I’m happy also. We’ve found Loren!”