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Published: Sunday, 9/13/2009

Discovery fills in final blank for family; Toledoan's warplane unearthed in France

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Her brother was killed in action, his plane downed over Normandy eight weeks after D-Day.

Yet a phone call out of the blue from a reporter brought too much news at once, even 65 years later: Wreckage of the P-51 Mustang fl own by 1st Lt. William D. Lacey, Jr., of East Toledo and the former Oregon Township had been unearthed in France.

“After all this time, it just brings up hopes again, and I just can't quite put it together,” his sister, Jeanne Woolems, 82, said.

She was skeptical at first, even as she heard that a group in Normandy region of France regularly recovers U.S. aircraft and was responsible - and that it wants to erect a memorial to Lieutenant Lacey.

"It's so far away," said Mrs. Woolems of Evansville, Ind. "I figured myself, with a plane going down, that there wouldn't be anything left."

Then last week she spoke with Robert Stuard, 64, of Monrovia, Calif., and learned more than she imagined to ask about the plane, her brother's mission, about this group in France.

Mr. Stuard, a teacher of World War II history, made it his cause to find Lieutenant Lacey's family after visiting France this summer and hearing that the plane was recovered in May.

The crashed plane of a former East Toledo resident was discovered in May in Normandy. The crashed plane of a former East Toledo resident was discovered in May in Normandy.
Enlarge

He wanted the family to know. He wanted to convey the depth of gratitude all these decades later.

"The people in the towns where they find the airplanes pool their money together" for the monuments, Mr. Stuard said. "That's a very heart-warming thing. The young people remember. Their parents pass down all the stories."

"There are no words," Mrs. Woolems said of her conversation with Mr. Stuard. "It was all new."

Madonna Heininger last saw her son, Bill Lacey, in a hangar at Evansville, Ind., Municipal Airport, a stopover before his mission to Europe in World War II.

Somewhere in the hangar, a radio played.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when," the old song went.old

Members of the Normandy Association for Air Remembrance, which was founded in 1994, look over the remains of a plane's engine. Members of the Normandy Association for Air Remembrance, which was founded in 1994, look over the remains of a plane's engine.
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

"She had tears in her eyes when she left," said her daughter, Mrs. Woolems, who was a teenager. "She knew all about the war."

Lieutenant Lacey, son and brother, was on a photo reconnaissance mission July 30, 1944, over Normandy when his P-51 Mustang crashed after it was hit by flak.

He was 21.

An article in The Blade Nov. 3, 1944, said he was listed as missing in action.

"Some time later - I don't remember when - I remember Mom walking up our long cinder drive from the rural mailbox on the road. She was crying," wrote Marvin "Mike" Heininger, 70, her son and Lieutenant Lacey's half-brother, in an e-mail.

"I don't recall her ever crying before," wrote Mr. Heininger, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. "I always thought that was the notice changing his status from missing to killed in action."

This May, Lieutenant Lacey's plane was recovered, several feet down, by the Normandy Association for Air Remembrance 1939-1945 Orne-Maine, a group of people from the area who "have worked since 1994 to honour the memory of aircrew who fought for our liberty and fell on our soil between 1940 and 1945," its Web site states.

The craft was alongside a small river. The land is owned by the mayor of the small town there, Saint-Martin-Don, according to an online translation of an article in the newspaper, Ouest-France, which quotes him as saying the location of the plane has always been known.

Because relic hunters descended on the area, the Normandy Association came to the rescue, Mr. Stuard said.

What the association found was astonishing: Recognizable parts of an airplane; the camera lens and its housing; an emergency kit that contained coins, a compass, a silk map; a parachute ripcord, and a piece of his flight suit.

As with all other recovered craft, the plane and effects were carted for safekeeping to the farm of Jacques Paris, the president of the association.

Lieutenant Lacey apparently was ejected from the plane. That was another message Mr. Stuard had for the pilot's sister.

"I basically told Jeanne that her brother was in his grave, because in 1947, the U.S. Army recovered his remains, witnessed by a little old schoolteacher who is still alive," Mr. Stuard said.

There was a service at the Rossford Funeral Home in early June, 1949, just before the fifth anniversary of D-Day, and a burial at Toledo Memorial Park. All these years, Mrs. Woolems thought the closed casket was empty.

His mother rarely spoke of Lieutenant Lacey before her death in the 1970s. Mrs. Woolems didn't have much contact with her father, who died in 1952.

And Mrs. Woolems rarely spoke of her brother to her own family.

Yet she thought of him every time she heard a plane.

"We live close to an airport, and they fly over the house all the time," she said.

Lieutenant Lacey was born May 15, 1923, in Toledo. The siblings were young when their parents separated.

"[Bill] was the best," she said. "My dad worked on the railroad. Mom had left him, and us kids, you might as well say, just ran the streets.

"He shielded me. I can see that," his sister said. "He was just like a normal kid. He was very responsible. He loved sports. He played ice hockey. He was into everything."

She was 9 and he was 12 when she was sent to live with her mother in Evansville.

"I was so young at the time," Mrs. Woolems said. "Supposedly he was allowed to go with his dad because he was 12. I had to go with my mother because I was younger."

He and his father, William, Sr., lived with his grandmother Arvilla Glosch on Starr Avenue for a time. An article in the Blade on July 3, 1942, said he was a graduate of Clay High School, attended what is now the University of Toledo, and that he had enlisted the month before in the Army Air Corps. He was stationed at Kelly Field in Texas. Before going overseas, he married a women he'd known in school, Irene. They didn't have children, and his family lost touch with her after his death, his sister said.

Hunting for the survivors of a Toledo pilot was not on Mr. Stuard's itinerary when he made an educational trip in July to France.

Mr. Stuard, who also is a professional model maker, teaches World War II for a home-schooling organization.

He had a 27-year career as a motion picture assistant camera man and was a sergeant in the Army, stationed in Europe in the mid-1960s. But he believed he needed to see the terrain, to see where the war was fought, to teach effectively.

He and his wife, Jana, were staying with friends of hers, and at dinner one night, their host spoke of an organization that recovers remains of Allied pilots and aircraft. His host asked whether he'd like to visit with them.

"Out of gratitude, I guess, I said, sure," Mr. Stuard recalled. "I'm not interested in the Air Corps. I'm interested in the guys who pounded the ground."

They were greeted at Mr. Paris' farm by an American flag flying "bigger than day," Mr. Stuard said.

"[Mr. Paris was] introduced to me. He said, 'Are you a Christian?' I answered, 'Yes,'•" Mr. Stuard said. "It was like we had been friends all our lives."

The courtesy visit turned into much more as Mr. Stuard toured the pieces of planes carted to Mr. Paris' farm. They talked about the aircraft of the war, even German airplanes.

"I just got hooked," Mr. Stuard said.

Inside the house, Mr. Paris showed him documents about two pilots whose planes were found - Newton B. Davis, Jr., of West Virginia, and Lieutenant Lacey of Toledo - and said the group needed help finding survivors in the United States.

Mr. Stuard volunteered.

"I'm a pretty good researcher," he said.

A student put him in touch with a genealogist, Teri Elias. At least eight hours a day for weeks, Mr. Stuard labored to find every detail, not least so he could present the family a dossier chronicling Lieutenant Lacey's military service.

At first, Mrs. Woolems preferred not to speak with Mr. Stuard. Overwhelmed by news of her brother's plane, she said, "I don't think I want to go through with it again."

She spoke with her daughter, Shirley Woolems, and granddaughter Beth Kennedy and reconsidered.

Mrs. Woolems finally reckoned that if Mr. Stuard hadn't taken the time, she wouldn't have heard about her brother's plane.

"I thought the least I could do was talk to him," she said. "I didn't expect all this."

Mr. Stuard e-mailed Ms. Kennedy photos of the excavation, of items found in the plane.

He got his first look at Lieutenant Lacey when Ms. Kennedy e-mailed him photos of the pilot.

"Truthfully, I cried. I was so full of emotion I couldn't even talk," Mr. Stuard said.

The plane likely touched the ground on one side of the river before coming to rest on the other side, Mr. Stuard said.

Mr. Paris of the Normandy association is working with the mayors of the towns on both sides to figure out where to put a monument.

But a monument there will be, and when it's dedicated next year, the association wants Lieutenant Lacey's family there, Mr. Stuard said.

The expense is a consideration, Mrs. Woolems said, "and making [overseas travel] arrangements is so new to all of us," she said.

"We're still mulling that over. To think that's one thing we could do for him after 65 years, to be there - but we have to find out how we can do that."

Contact Mark Zaborney at:

mzaborney@theblade.com

or 419-724-6182.



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