After 74 years, a missing World War II pilot shot down over Germany has finally been laid to rest on American soil. That resting place is beside his brother, Henry, also a World War II veteran, in the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery near Millsboro.
The remains of U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Stanley Stegnerski were buried Jan. 22 with full military honors.
Janice and Craig Tunell and their family – who were neighbors of siblings Tessa and Henry Stegnerski starting in the 1980s in Wilmington – have long been steadfast friends, and in recent years, the Tunells cared for the aging brother and sister. “They became members of our family. Early on, I was made aware that Stanley was missing,” Janice Tunell said.
Tunell said no one who knew Stanley had ever given up hope the two brothers would be reunited.
Three Stegnerski brothers – Stanley, Ted and Henry – served in the European Theater during World War II. Henry passed away in 2015 and Ted in 2002.
“All of the family is now reunited in heaven, and they know the whole story,” Janice Tunell said.
Tunell said Henry had been coming to a weekend vacation home on the Indian River near Dagsboro since the 1960s. “He was happiest down here,” she said, adding that's the reason he was buried in the downstate veterans cemetery.
“This is a glorious day to bring a hero home and have closure,” Tunell said. “The brothers will be side by side as brothers should be.”
The Tunells also have a home in the Dagsboro area.
On Feb. 15, 2015, Henry passed away at age 90. Tunell said Henry carried scars of the war with him throughout his life and rarely spoke about his experiences. She said he was among soldiers who went to the Dachau concentration camp when the ovens that killed thousands of people were still in operation.
Tunell said Stanley's remains were taken from Germany to a lab in Nebraska, and then flown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport where they were transported to Melson's Funeral Home. “His remains were escorted from Nebraska by a soldier who happened to be 25 years old and an aviator himself,” Tunell said.
Pilot shot down over Germany
On Nov. 21, 1944, Stegnerski, 25, from Chester, Pa., was the pilot of a P-51D Mustang taking off from an English air force base in East Wretham, Norfolk, as part of a bomber escort mission over Germany.
Over Merseberg, Germany, American aircraft were attacked by German fighters, and Stegnerski's group closed in on a group of 20 German planes and opened fire. Stegnerski was last seen as he prepared to attack the German Focke-Wulf fighters.
Research by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency found a German record of a Nov. 21 crash of a Mustang with a tail number similar to Stegnerski's between the towns of Dollstedt and Grafentonna.
The report stated the pilot could not be identified and the remains were buried in Grafentonna. With no information on Stegnerski as a prisoner of war, the Secretary of War declared him missing Nov. 22, 1945, and using captured German records, declared him deceased in July 1947.
A 74-year detective story
Grafentonna was in East Germany, under Soviet control after 1947, restricting efforts by U.S. officials to find the missing pilot.
And that's where the story could have ended, if not for a twist of fate.
In June 2007, a historian in now-unified Germany, using a metal detector, discovered a fragment of a plane that still showed four serial numbers. Using German and American records, the fragment was identified as part of Stegnerski's plane.
But it would take 10 years before a positive identification could be made, based on DNA provided by Stanley’s brother, Henry. Identifying the remains eventually led to a meeting this past December with the Tunells and Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency representatives. By that time, Henry had passed away; Tunell was certified as next of kin.
High school students in the United States and Germany played a critical role in a decade of research. In June 2008, as part of a Sister Cities program, students from Gastonia, N.C., and Gotha, Germany, met near the crash site in Germany and interviewed two residents who witnessed the dogfight and crash. They also interviewed Henry.
Those interviews provided information that led a U.S. team to investigate the crash site. In 2008 the team recovered a piece of the plane's engine that matched Stegnerski's aircraft.
Tunell said because more recent recovery cases take priority, it would be eight years until the defense agency team excavated the site, finding remains and material evidence. They also found a watch stopped at 12:20 p.m., the approximate time witnesses said the plane crashed.
In August 2017, using DNA, dental records and material evidence, the DPAA and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System were able to positively identify the remains as Stegnerski's. Officials met with the Tunells outlining their research and presented them with Stanley's watch.
“I couldn't stop the tears,” Tunell said.
Stegnerski's niece, Christina Francino of Hampstead, Md., attended the veterans cemetery ceremony with her husband, Steve, and daughters, Lauren and Kelly. She is the daughter of Ted and Marge Stegnerski; Marge lives with the family.
In addition, David Iezzi and Brooke Conrad, the students who interviewed Henry, and members of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory from Dover Air Force Base also attended the ceremony.
More than 400,000 Americans died during World War II, and nearly 73,000 service members are still unaccounted for.
Stegnerski's name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium along with others missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he is no longer missing.
Nov. 3, 1942: Stanley Stegnerski joins the Army Air Corps.
Nov. 21, 1944: The 25-year-old pilot is shot down over Germany.
July 9, 1946: Stanley Stegnerski is declared killed in action by U.S. War Department.
June 2007: German historian Herr Leich finds a piece of a plane in a farm field. He contacts the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
June 2008: Students in a Sister Cities program from Gastonia, N.C., and Gotha, Germany, interview two German residents who witnessed the dogfight and crash. All information is turned over to U.S. officials.
September 2008: Brother Henry Stegnerski, also a World War II veteran, submits DNA. Students interview Henry.
July 2009: Officials conduct preliminary investigation and crash site is added to a recovery list.
Feb. 15, 2015: Henry passes away.
August 2016: Crash site in Germany is excavated.
August 2017: Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency officials provide Tunells with confirmation the remains have been positively identified as Stanley Stegnerski.
December 2017: Officials meet with Tunells to explain research. Officials present a watch recovered at the crash site to the couple.
Jan. 22, 2018: Full military honors ceremony for Stanley takes place at Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Local vet went missing the same day
Caroline Green of Georgetown was among those who attended the Jan. 22 ceremony. She said the date that Stanley Stegnerski went missing has special significance to her family.
On that same date, Nov. 21, 1944, her brother, Harry Russell of Georgetown, also went missing after he parachuted from a plane in China just five miles from an airbase. “The plane was disabled and two crew members parachuted into a lake,” she said.
Ironically, the pilot landed the plane, but Russell's remains have never been located.