Harold Gay Stalnaker
First Lieutenant, United States Army Air Forces
First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces
366th Fighter Squadron, 358th Fighter Group
Entered the Service from: West Virginia
Died: December 23, 1944
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Luxembourg American Cemetery
Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Awards: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 13 Oak Leaf Clusters, Purple Heart
59 years after Spencer pilot's ill-fated mission, he's getting a proper burial
Courtesy of the Daily Mail
Wednesday May 05, 2004
When Lieutenant Harold Gay Stalnaker lowered himself into the cockpit of his P-47 Thunderbolt for a mission over Germany on December 23, 1944, he was likely thinking of home.
Stalnaker wasn’t supposed to lead the mission on the cold, gray day. He and two other pilots in the 366th Fighter Squadron had been given a 72-hour pass to Paris, about 200 miles from their base in Toul, in Northeast France.
Stalnaker turned down the leave. He had flown more than 90 missions and was eager to reach the 100-mission mark so he could return to Spencer and marry his fiancee, Emelene Waldeck.
He didn’t know military officials were about to raise the total missions needed to complete a tour to 125.
This mission was his last. Returning from the run, another P-47 pulled within 200 yards of Stalnaker’s aircraft and, mistaking it, shot the 21-year-old pilot’s aircraft. His plane went into a vertical dive, crashing nose-first in a field outside of Kehlen, a small town in Luxembourg.
Lieutenant Dominic Coppolino, Stalnaker’s wingman, downed the other plane.
“We joked that the type of missions we were flying was like playing Russian roulette,” said squadron mate Elmer Brown. “Sooner or later, you were going to get killed.”
“The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son First Lieutenant Harold G. Stalnaker has been reported missing in action,” read the telegraph sent to Stalnaker’s mother, Gay.
“Two Roane boys war casualties,” declared the headline in the local newspaper.
But Stalnaker would return home one day. Fifty-nine years after the ill-fated mission, he is to have a burial with full military honors this Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
In Kehlen, the villagers heard the dogfight and the crash. After the fire was extinguished, they buried Stalnaker beside his plane.
That might have been his final resting place. American investigators determined Stalnaker’s remains were unrecoverable, and his name was placed on the Wall of the Missing at Luxembourg Cemetery.
Then, in 1991, local workers discovered remnants of the plane while digging a sewer line. Raymond Hoffman, an amateur archeologist, excavated the plane, salvaging as much as he could. The engine of the “Jug” was sent to the Battle of the Bulge Museum.
But for more than a decade no one knew who had flown the plane.
An adjutant with the Luxembourg Army, John Derneden, is a World War II history buff who spends his weekends trying to identify and help repatriate fallen soldiers. Over the years he has located 280 sites.
After conducting research, Derneden contacted the U.S. Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which has the task of identifying the remains of missing service members.
As carefully as an archeologist disinterring ancient Egyptian ruins, the American team exhumed Stalnaker’s remains.
And then it contacted his closest living relative, nephew Charlie Stalnaker.
Charlie Stalnaker, 55, was born four years after friendly fire claimed his uncle over Luxembourg. His father, since deceased, was Harold Stalnaker’s younger brother, Charles.
Growing up in Charleston, Charlie Stalnaker heard little about his uncle. “He was a myth, a hero who no one ever wanted to talk about,” he said.
Then last fall the telephone rang in Charlie Stalnaker’s Orange County, California, home. Harold Stalnaker had been found.
For Charlie Stalnaker, the identification of his uncle’s remains has set off an entire series of events he never anticipated.
In late December, nearly 59 years to the day after his uncle’s death, he and wife Cindy visited Kehlen, where they were feted by the local townspeople. Hoffman, who will travel to the United States for the first time for Stalnaker’s service, presented them with a carefully cleaned engine valve from the plane. Residents gave them two albums of photographs, illustrating the site’s excavation.
“We remain deeply thankful to those brave soldiers like your Uncle Harold and hold their memory in the highest possible esteem,” then-mayor Joseph Halsdorf told Charlie Stalnaker.
On a cold, overcast day, much like that one six decades earlier, Charlie Stalnaker ventured to the spot where his uncle died.
“For nearly 59 years, Uncle Harold had been a memory with no emotion associated,” he said. “And then I formed an emotional attachment. . ..
“I felt he needed to come home.”
The woman Stalnaker was trying to get home to, dark-haired Emelene Waldeck, never learned he had been found. She passed away about a year before his remains were identified.
Charlie Stalnaker had been searching for his uncle’s fiancee so he could tell her the news and said he regretted he was never able to do so.
“I just missed out,” Stalnaker said.
After Waldeck died, her daughter, Kimberly McKown-Strait, found a packet of more than 100 letters Stalnaker had written to her, beginning when he enlisted and was sent to Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School in Texas.
“So off I go into the wild blue yonder — I’ve put my dreams into this sky,” Stalnaker wrote.
“Wish me luck, Em, for my luck I hope will be our luck.”
Stalnaker will be buried with full military
honors at 1 p.m. Friday at the Fort Myer Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery.
An informal visitation will take place the previous evening. In lieu of
flowers, the Stalnaker family is asking donations be made to the restoration
of a P-47 at Peterson Air and Space Museum in Colorado. More information
is available at www.cstalnaker.com.