COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - She had heard the stories, knew that the Germans had shot down her grandfather’s B-26C Marauder two days before Christmas 1944.
She knew that Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William O. Pile, a former cabdriver from Circleville, was among the tens of thousands of men from World War II whose names were written on the rolls of the missing and unaccounted for.
But that’s about as far as Elizabeth Dorstewitz’s family history lesson had gotten until the day the caller ID on her phone lit up with “Department of Defense.”
They had found some remains, someone from the government said, and they were Pile’s. As his closest living kin, what would she like to do?
“It was a shocker, to tell you the truth,” said Dorstewitz. “I sobbed.”
That was in the spring of this year, and it turned out to be only the start of an emotional journey for Dorstewitz. It led her to an extended family she had never known and culminated on Tuesday at Pile’s funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Dorstewitz, a 55-year-old business owner who lives in northern California, received her grandfather’s medals. And she was able to say goodbye.
“Through all of this, I was able to find out all the pieces to my grandfather’s story. I never knew how much of a hero he was,” she said. “What this did for me was unlock a lifetime of secrets. I only wish my mother was here with me to see this. I wish that with all of my heart.
“But it all came too late.”
As a teen, Pile had met a girl in Circleville named Leona. At 16, they had a child. But it was a different time back then, and teenage pregnancies generally weren’t greeted with parties and cheers. The Piles married, but only for a short time.
After the divorce, Pile eventually went off to war and learned to fly a plane.
Assigned to the 559th Bombardment Squadron, 387th Bombardment Group, 9th Air Force, Pile was piloting one of 26 planes on a mission to support the Allied troops fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Somewhere over Philippsweiler, Germany, on Dec. 23, 1944, Pile’s plane took enemy fire. The Department of Defense said he kept control of the aircraft long enough for his eight crewmen to parachute out. Seven made it to safety; one was captured and died a POW.
Pile and his co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Ward, went down with the burning plane.
In April 2009, a government team went to Philippsweiler and interviewed several Germans who recalled an American wartime crash. Then they surveyed the possible crash site.
Later, between June 2010 and July 2011, government recovery teams excavated the area and recovered human remains and some of the wreckage.
Pile’s immediate family, including his parents, Herman “Jack” Pile and Mary Boggs Pile, from Circleville, were all long gone. So government case workers and genealogists first needed to find someone to give a DNA sample to test for a positive identification (that came in December) and then someone had to take custody of the remains.
They found Emory Estes in Texas, a distant cousin of Pile’s and a decorated veteran himself. There were burial arrangements to be made, medals and honors to be posthumously awarded.
“They told us that we would be the ones making choices, and I was just staggered,” said 88-year-old Dorothy Estes, Emory’s widow. (He died in 2013.) “We were horrified to be making a decision about someone we knew so little about.”
The family knew of Pile, knew that he’d lived in Ohio and had died in the war. But how, Mrs. Estes wondered, could he have left not so much as a trace of his life behind?
“You can’t go all through life without making some connection. I kept saying, ‘There must be someone, some little old lady back in Ohio today who he’d had a crush on who could at least help us learn about him,’??” Estes said from her home in Arlington, Texas. “We just wanted to get to know who he was.”
Armed with a background in journalism and a powerful curiosity, Mrs. Estes started poking around.
Eventually, she made her way to both the 1940 census and the website Ancestry.com. Over the phone, she befriended Pickaway County historians and the women who run a genealogical library there. And she found a Leona Pile with a “D” for divorced. And somewhere along the way she found a notation about a Martha Ann Pile, born Dec. 24, 1936.
She remembers what she thought: “My God. There’s a child.”
Estes, working with the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, kept at it. She and the government found Dorstewitz.
That phone call from the government opened a window to a world she never knew, Dorstewitz said. Over the past few months she has discovered more of her grandparents’ story. She’s gained insight into what it must have been like for her mother (who died of breast cancer in 1991 at the age of 53) to have lived without her father all those years and to not have known much of her own lineage from that side.
“Now I know his story. I know how brave he was. I know he was a good man and that he did a lot of growing up during the war,” Dorstewitz said. “I know in my heart that if he would have come back for my mother, who just never knew much about any of this, things would have been different.”
Dorstewitz’s sister, Catherine Moore, still lives in Ohio but could not attend the service.
Today, there are still some 73,000 troops classified as missing from World War II, about 8,000 from Korea and 1,626 from Vietnam.
Liz Flick, a Columbus-based regional coordinator for the National League of POW/MIA Families, said it’s not uncommon, as the older generations of the families of those still unaccounted for die off, that the next group of descendants uncover stories they never knew.
“Dad or grandpa was, until then, just a photo in a frame,” Flick said. “All so many know is that he went flying off to war and never came back.”
For the families of the missing, every new identification of someone previously listed as POW/MIA brings renewed hope.
“What we all want are answers for every family,” Flick said. “That’s not possible, so you’re just grateful for the ones who do get them.”
In Washington this week, Dorstewitz and Estes met in person for the first time. Dorstewitz had her own daughters with her, and several descendants from the Pile side of the family were there, too.
Dorstewitz received her grandfather’s medals and a folded U.S. flag in his honor. She held the emblem from his pilot’s cap and clutched a couple of buttons from his uniform that had been recovered.
She cried as the caisson approached and when a major pinned a gold star onto her coat. She carried a single red rose as she touched the urn that held the remains. And she hugged her newfound relatives.
For 1st Lt. William O. Pile, it was a war hero’s sendoff, a goodbye. For his granddaughter, it was a beginning, a hello.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com
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