Evansville man bonds with fallen father 70 years after plane crash

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, December 2, 2013

EVANSVILLE--A U.S. flag marks the dying ground in northern California where Dan Wright quietly prayed last month with his two sisters.

At 74, the Evansville man had been hoping most of his life for closure about his father's sudden death. Finally, Dan stood among the scattered and small pieces of debris, leftover from an Army Air Corps plane crash in 1943.

Dan was only 4 the night his father, Lt. Bruce Wright, took off on a routine flying mission from Idaho to California in a B-24 Liberator, the bombing workhorse of World War II.

Bruce was co-pilot in a crew of nine. Their mission was to drop seven practice bombs, turn around and return home on a moonless night.

But an engine started on fire and caused the right wing to drop off.

No one survived the fiery impact.

Young Dan's parents were divorced, and his father remarried. Dan had heard the name of the small town where the plane went down as a child, but he forgot it later. For long decades, Dan never knew where the crash occurred or where his father was buried.

“I always wondered what it would have been like if my father had lived,” Dan said. “It was very hard growing up without him.”

Dan worked 47 years at the Janesville General Motors plant and raised a family. In 1988, he tried to find his dad but gave up when he ran into road blocks.

Dan's son, Denny, had heard about his grandfather as a boy but was fuzzy on the details.

“I just heard that he died in a plane crash,” Denny said. “I didn't know if he had been shot down in Europe.”

Eight years ago, Denny began searching for answers.

“I wanted to give my dad a gift,” Denny said. “I thought maybe I would find my grandfather's grave after a weekend of searching on the Internet.”

Instead, it took years and the help of many caring strangers.

Denny scoured decades-old records, newspaper clippings and cemetery records with the help of his wife, Susan. They compiled clues. They followed leads. They talked to family members with faint memories.

Eventually, they learned that the remains of Bruce Wright had been sent to Cook County, Ill. With perseverance, they found his grave in a Chicago suburb. Dan and his sister Sandra Blakeslee of Oshkosh now place a flag on the stone annually for Memorial Day.

During the hunt for Bruce's grave, Susan researched military-training crashes during World War II. She discovered that accidents happened regularly in the United States and resulted in thousands of deaths.

Denny said the B-24 his grandfather flew was a death trap.

“Pilots hated them because they caught on fire,” he said. “Thousands of servicemen died in them.”

Eventually, Denny got the full military report and began looking for the crash site. He and Susan drove to California, where they found local historians and elderly people who remembered the crash. They connected with a sheriff, who helped them locate where the plane went down near the small community of Bieber. One resident gave Denny a tachometer, found near the fallen B-24. Another gave him a piece of airplane wing.

Denny, an organic farmer in Rock County and a full-time teacher at Blackhawk Technical College, knew he had found an important part of his family's history.

In November, he drove his father and eldest aunt to the crash site. Other family members also made the pilgrimage, including Dan's half sister Bruce Elizabeth Frey of Connecticut, whom Dan had not seen in 40 years.

On a sunny morning, the reunited siblings walked together into what is now a fallow rice field where their father died so many years ago. In the center of the debris field, the people of Bieber had put up a flag.

“We felt a lot of emotions,” Dan said. “We were not only bonding with each other but also with our father. It was truly about family love at the place where my father had been killed.”

When Denny saw his dad and aunts from afar, he knew he had done the right thing by looking for his grandfather.

“Here were three children who lost their father,” he said. “They came together over where grandpa died. I got the sense it was a big moment, and the healing can begin because of it.”

While there, the townspeople catered a lunch for the family.

“We went there to recover part of our family,” Denny said, "but the town also was recovering part of its history. When my grandfather crashed there, he created a link to the town, which we did not find until recently. Now, we realize how important we are to each other.”

The local Veterans of Foreign Wars post is working to put up a monument at the little museum in Bieber to honor the fallen servicemen. In the meantime, Denny is attempting to contact their descendants so they can attend a future dedication of the monument.

Dan does not know if he will ever have closure to his father's death, but he is thankful he visited the crash site, and he appreciates the warm people of Bieber.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” he said.  

Denny knows that none of his discoveries could have happened if strangers had not followed their hearts and helped him along the way.

“I have so many friends that I met who are practically family members now,” he said.

But, more importantly, the journey introduced him to a legendary man he never knew.

“I found my grandpa,” Denny said. “I now have a personal relationship with him. He isn't just something from a history book anymore.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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