MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Step inside the Commemorative Air Force hangar at Flemming Field in South St. Paul and you’re swept up in history.
There is an array of vintage war birds, vividly painted and ready for flight, and nearby is a 3,300-pound mass of mangled metal that once powered a U.S. pilot on his fighter missions against Nazi Germany.
“It’s hard to digest,” Hans Wronka said. “It literally was the horse that took the chariot to battle with the warrior on it.”
Wronka is speaking about his decade-long quest to find the crash site of his grandfather, Lt. Loren Hintz, who was shot down over the Italian landscape in the closing days of World War II. The chariot he’s speaking of was a P-47 fighter plane — its warrior was Lt. Hintz.
In the summer of 2016, Wronka was rewarded in his quest when he and a team of searchers located the crash site and excavated his grandfather’s remains, along with the plane’s artifacts. The discovery was made some 71 years after Lt. Hintz’s P-47 was hit by German ground fire in the moments following a bombing run near Bagnarola, Italy.
Recently, the massive, 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney engine and other artifacts were shipped to Minnesota where they are now on display.
“The dirt embedded in the engine is Italian dirt that he walked on 70 years ago,” Wronka said.
A decade after beginning his grandfather’s search, Hans was helped by Italian, Pierro Fabbri.
“I would never have found him without the help of this man,” Fabbri said.
Fabbri enlisted the help of a local resident, Aristide Chiesa. He was a young boy of 12 during the war, and recalls the plane crash that set his family’s home on fire. But even worse was the shooting between German and Allied forces that killed his own grandfather, who was gathering up his livestock following the crash.
Last summer, Chiesa would lead Hans Wronka and a team of searchers directly to the crash site.
“He and his brother were in the shelter and they heard the bombing action and the airplane crash,” an interpreter said, translating Chiesa’s words.
Under 18 feet of soil they’d find Wronka’s grandfather — human remains which were positively identified recently using DNA testing. There were two of his dog tags along with his pilot’s knife, assorted engine parts, even the rusty CO2 canister that was used to inflate a life raft in the event a pilot crashed over water.
After years of searching, history is now in his hands — a tangible connection to the realities of war.
“To think about who that pilot was, who his family was back home and to think about the other pilots who made the same sacrifice,” Wronka said.
There will be a public unveiling of the artifacts and panel discussion with the search team on Saturday, July 22 at 10 a.m. at the Commemorative Air Force in South St. Paul. The hangar is located at the southeast end of Flemming Field.