Patricia Gaffney- Ansel was bittersweet about escorting
her father's remains to Madison, Wis., his hometown and then to Arlington
National Cemetery for his June 9 burial. "It's my first contact with my father
and then I have to give him up," she said before the trip.
Gaffney- Ansel never met her father, 2nd Lt. George Philip Gafffney
Jr., because she was born three months after he was declared missing in action.
Gaffney was flying his P-47 over Papua New Guinea, where mountain peaks are
enshrouded in clouds most of the time, on March 11, 1944. It was in that cloud
cover that Gaffney crashed into the side of a mountain.
That loss has been a nagging ache for Gaffney ‚ Ansel. Her knowledge
of her father comes only from the stories she has heard from her mother, other
relatives and friends. Gaffney- Ansel's "Journey of the Heart" to find her
father started six years ago, after she saw Janice Olson interviewed on a
morning news show. Olson researches WWII aircraft crashes.
During the broadcast, Olson presented a bracelet she'd found
at a crash site to the widow of the pilot that had worn it. "It was really
just a stunning moment," Gaffney- Ansel said. "I knew my life had changed
at that point." After making contact with Olson in 1995, the two women became
fast friends and eventually traveled to Papua New Guinea in search of a memory.
Ansel knew her father was flying back to his base camp when he
had the accident. He had stopped to refuel and to have mechanics check his
aircraft after encountering Japanese planes that fired on him. The plane got
a clean inspection and Gaffney headed back to his base camp at 2:50 p.m. He
crashed 10 minutes into the flight.
When Gaffney- Ansel visited Papua New Guinea and saw the triple
canopy jungle, "I was really able to understand how you could easily have
a plane go missing," she said. In a letter he wrote the night before he died,
her father described the tall kunai grass along the runway at Gusap. That's
where Gaffney- Ansel buried a box containing photographs of herself and a
family crucifix in the same grass. She then left the island, feeling better
for at least coming close to her father's spirit.
Ironically, the pilot who ferried her around the island on that
1995 trip found the wreckage of her father's plane 2 years later. Richard
Leahy, who owns an aviation company in Papua New Guinea, then passed news
of the find to the US Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.
Leahy, who has worked with the CILHI on previous cases, provided
grid coordinates of the P-47's location as well as the tail number, which
confirmed the plane was the one Gaffney, piloted.
Maj. Darrell Larson commanded the CILHI search and recovery team
that was sent to the crash site. When he and the team arrived at the site,
they discovered the engine was the only thing still intact. They couldn't
find the tail number in the wreckage, but positively identified the plane
through the serial numbers of the .50- caliber machine guns.
Working at about 8,000 ft on the 11,000 ‚ foot mountain, "we
were definitely in the clouds everyday." Larson said. With her father's June
9 burial at Arlington, Gaffney- Ansel's "magnificent obsession" has come to
a close. "I'm feeling victorious... very proud," she said. "It's a great honor
to be able to bring him home."