A local woman is hoping to find a World War II escort pilot who was in Sierra Vista a decade ago and shared a fateful encounter with her father-in-law.
The search stems from a chance meeting between the pilot — whose name is unknown — and Hereford resident Susan Ostrander.
About 10 years ago, the daughter of a World War II B-17 tail gunner gave a presentation at the Ethel Berger Center about her father’s war experiences, based on a book by her dad detailing his time as a B-17 crew member. The event attracted many locals with an interest in World War II and the experiences of B-17 crews and pilots.
Susan Ostrander was one of those who attended the presentation because her father-in-law, Lynn Harmon Ostrander, who is now 96 and lives in Syracuse, New York, was a B-17 waist gunner during the war. His plane, the B-17 Swamp Gal, was shot down on Christmas Day in 1944, representing Lynn Ostrander’s first and last combat mission.
“My father-in-law was drafted into the Army Air Corps and was a member of the 99th Bomb Group, 346th Squadron,” Susan Ostrander recently told the Herald/Review.
“His plane flew out of Tortorella Air Field in Italy and went down on Christmas Day in 1944. He survived the crash, but sustained injuries and was a German prisoner of war for 101 days. Because of our family’s B-17 connection, I was interested in hearing the presentation at Ethel Berger that day.”
Coincidentally, a WWII pilot whose squadron flew escort missions for bombing missions also attended the presentation.
During a question and answer session after the talk, Susan Ostrander mentioned her father-in-law’s ill-fated combat mission out of a base in Italy on that Christmas Day in 1944.
“I told the group that my father-in-law flew one-half of one mission because he was shot down on his first combat flight,” Susan Ostrander said.
Her comments struck a chord with the escort pilot in attendance, who approached Ostrander as people were leaving the presentation, and asked her what base her father-in-law flew out of.
He shared that he had been a pilot in a support squadron that escorted bombing missions from a base in Northern Italy into Germany. He happened to be on a mission on Christmas Day in 1944 and remembered one plane that had been badly hit.
The pilot told her that he flew up to the side of the plane and motioned for the pilot to follow him back to Italy. But the B-17 had been damaged too badly to make the return trip to Italy, so the pilot of the crippled B-17 waved him on.
Unfortunately, Susan Ostrander did not know the name of Italian air field, but after hearing what the escort pilot had to say, she started wondering if he had witnessed the very plane that her father-in-law and his crew were on.
“I did not get the name of the pilot, but after relaying his story to my father-in-law, I was convinced that this had to be the same plane,” she said. “The pilot told me that there was only one B-17 that did not return to the home base in Italy on that Christmas Day.”
Lynn Ostrander also recounts the incident in the following memoirs he provided about that combat flight and his World War II experiences.
“Our plane was hit while on the bombing run, but I think we held course until our bombs were dropped. One engine and our hydraulic system had been knocked out...We knew we couldn’t go back to base, so a decision was made to head for friendly (Russian) territory,” wrote Lynn Ostrander, who also mentions the escort plane.
“One of our fighters flew up beside us and motioned to our pilot to follow him and head for home base. But our pilot knew that we couldn’t make it to the base in Italy. So the escort pilot waved and peeled off, heading back to the base in Italy.”
Ostrander’s plane was shot down by the Germans, killing the pilot and co-pilot, but the crew was able to parachute to safety.
“When I picked myself up (after bailing out of the plane) I could see a column of smoke from where our plane had already gone down,” Ostrander wrote.
He and other members of the crew were captured, taken to a nearby town and interrogated briefly by the SS. Ostrander, who had a shrapnel wound in his right ankle, was taken to a hospital in Felbring, Austria where he underwent surgery for his ankle injury.
He also was fitted with a cast because of an injury to his right knee and given crutches before being moved to a distant POW camp. Ostrander was a POW for 101 days, until he was liberated by General George Patton’s troops in the spring of 1945.
During her discussion with the escort pilot following the presentation at Ethel Berger, Susan Ostrander said the pilot told her that he thought about the ill-fated plane and crew every Christmas day, and wondered if they survived the crash.
“I did not think to ask the pilot for his name, nor do I have the name of the woman who gave the presentation, which I deeply regret,” Ostrander said. “At the time, I wasn’t sure if the pilot and I were even talking about my father-in-law’s plane and crew. But after talking to my father-in-law, I’m convinced that it was his plane. I think it’s extraordinary that I was able to talk to this pilot through a chance meeting.”
The Ostrander family would like to know if anyone is familiar with this pilot, or if he’s still in Sierra Vista.
“If he is still here, or if someone out there knows who he is, we would love to reach him,” Susan Ostrander said. “To me, it’s absolutely incredible that this pilot and I came together in the same room and shared this story that had taken place 65 years from the time of our meeting. I’m so sorry that I didn’t think to ask him for his name,” she lamented.
Susan Ostrander does have a missing air crew report detailing the men on the flight, and those known to have been among the last to see the plane. Three names are visible at the bottom as having seen the aircraft before it was lost.
The names and numbers for the men are difficult to read on the 75-year-old document, but appear to be: Lt. Claude Acree, serial number O-2057836, Lt. John Bodell, serial number O-721772, and Sgt. Edward Sisko, serial number 33672067. Susan Ostrander believes one of these men may have been the pilot who saw her father-in-law’s fateful flight in 1944.
Anyone who may have details on the pilot is asked to contact Susan Ostrander at 520-366-0360, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“These two guys have lived their whole lives wondering about each other. We would love to put him in touch with my father-in-law, if possible,” she said.