JANESVILLE — Tom Skinner never met his second cousin Sgt. Frank W. Leach, who died before Skinner was born.
That hasn't stopped Skinner from creating a memorial in Leach's honor.
Actually, the memorial is for others besides Leach—the son of Skinner's grandmother's sister. It's also for all veterans who are missing in action after having served their country, Skinner said.
“There's a lot of forgotten soldiers like Frank Leach. I don't want him to be forgotten and would like to solve the mystery of what happened to him,” Skinner said.
The memorial includes a military bike Skinner has restored, along with photos, medals, maps, patches and books related to Leach.
Skinner spent all winter restoring the 26-inch military bike, which he bought from a friend. He stripped it of its original paint, primed it, repainted it, put a sign on it and added military saddlebags and a first aid kit.
Clad in military garb, Skinner will ride the bike in Janesville's Memorial Day parade on Monday, May 27. He's also scheduled to present programs about the project to the Janesville Kiwanis Blackhawk Golden K Club, the Luther Valley Historical Society and at some upcoming military shows.
Growing up in Massachusetts, Skinner heard stories about Leach from his cousin's mother. When Leach's mother died, she left her home to Skinner's mother, who then sold it to Skinner's sister, Nancy (Skinner) Scott of Danvers, Mass.
That's when Scott found all of Leach's pictures, medals and other memorabilia and gave them to Skinner. But it wasn't until last year that Skinner, a Janesville School District retiree and a bike collector, became fascinated with learning more about Leach's life.
What Skinner has learned is that Leach was a turret machine gunner on a B25 Mitchell Bomber serving in the U.S. Army Air Force. He went missing in action May 11, 1944, while flying a reconnaissance mission in bad weather and crashed in to Mount Hagen, New Guinea.
Of the six crew members aboard the plane, only the co-pilot's body was found.
Skinner believes it's possible the other crewmembers might have bailed out of the plane, or that they were captured by the Japanese.
“There are just a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.
Skinner has been in touch with the Department of the Army Repatriation branch of the U.S. Military. Just last month, the department found two pistols at the remote crash site along with human remains—skin, bones and hair.
Both Skinner and his sister have submitted DNA samples to see if theirs matches any of the remains. But, Skinner notes, it will be months before results are known.