A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A daughter's quest for her father, missing for more than half a century
On June 9, 1999, I walked with my mother and two children behind the flag-draped casket of my father, 2nd Lt. George Philip Gaffney, Jr., as it was borne on a horse-drawn caisson to its final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Full military honors included a fly over by four A-10 Thunderbolts in the Missing Man Formation, the wingman spiraling away, symbolizing the lost pilot. It was appropriate for my father to be saluted by the modern version of this plane, for he was reported missing 55 years before, while piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt in the Finesterre Mountains of New Guinea.
The ceremony at Arlington was the culmination of a series of extraordinary events that began in September 1993 when I listened to Janice Olson, a WWII aircraft wreck researcher, on a morning talk show describing the discovery of a wreck in New Guinea. It was a breathtaking moment because my father had disappeared there in March 1944, three months before I was born. Overwhelmed with the possibility that his plane wreck might be found, I contacted Olson and embarked upon a journey to learn about my father, who I knew only from a sepia-toned portrait of a young man in uniform.
Olson told me about the Army's Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), and I wrote to them in April 1995, asking if they had ever found anything related to my father. The answer was, regrettably, no. That May, I traveled with Olson to Papua New Guinea, and hired a helicopter pilot to fly me to the places where my father had been, like the old aerodrome at Gusap, where his squadron, the 41st, was based. As I stood there on the abandoned airstrip to which my father had not returned after a mission, I listened for the sound of the breeze blowing through the tall kunai grass that he had described in his last letter to my mother. I retraced the presumed route of his last flight through the treacherous Finesterre Mountains, where so many American planes had gone down.
In October 1998, a team from CILHI identified my father's crash site in the mountains, recovered human remains from the aircraft, and took them to Hawaii for identification. The dental records I'd kept in an old suitcase along with my father's letters would aid in that process, proving that the remains were my father's.
I flew to CILHI in Honolulu on June 1, 1999, to be my father's official escort. The long return flight was spent in reflection and tears. I remembered the words of a veteran who told me, "I would like to think, had it been me, that my daughter would have gone to look for me to bring me home." I cried for my grandparents who went to their graves still grieving for their first child and only son, and I thought of my mother who, in her grief on the long night after she received the telegram, feared she would lose her baby as well as her husband. And I finally knew what had happened to my father. Like so many others, he had fallen victim to the zero visibility of the Finesterres, described to me by men who'd flown there more than half a century ago. Now, my father was no longer lost and alone. He was with me and I was taking him home.
Patricia Gaffney-Ansel is president of the board of directors of the American WWII Orphans Network. Visit the AWON website at www.awon.org or call 540-310-0750.