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New clue and hope in search for missing midstate World War II soldier

Written by Brandie Kessler/York Daily Record | Aug 17, 2017 12:33 PM
grave_john_murphy.jpg

A headstone for John S. Murphy, who went missing during World War II, stands amid his family members' plots in the Chanceford Presbyterian Church cemetery in Lower Chanceford Township. (Photo: Brandie Kessler, York Daily Record)

(Undated) -- In a Lower Chanceford Township cemetery, John Murphy's headstone stands in his family's plot, telling of his life and service:

LT. JOHN STEWART MURPHY

NAVIGATOR, 486TH BOMB GROUP 832ND SQDN.

8th AIR FORCE

BORN APRIL 6, 1923

LOST OVER GERMANY IN W.W. II

APRIL 10, 1945

But his body is not there.

Murphy, the oldest of James and Helen Murphy's two sons, was raised in Delta in the 1920s. A mechanical wiz in high school whose good looks made the girls "swoon," a cousin said, Murphy was drafted into the Army Air Corps. 

Four days after his 22nd birthday, Murphy and eight others bailed out of a damaged Flying Fortress over eastern Germany.

They parachuted safely to the ground. But the men were captured by German soldiers and separated into two groups. One was rescued when Americans liberated the area around Beckendorf the next day.

Murphy and three others were never seen again.

Delta's John S. Murphy VFW Post #7130 closed this spring. Relatives of Murphy, a World War II airman whose remains have not been recovered, were able to retrieve his medals and memorabilia from the empty VFW building. Chris Dunn

Helen Murphy, John's mother, spent her life trying to find out what happened to her son. She read everything she could about the war, she talked to the men who served with her son, she wrote letters.

But the fruitless search died with her in 1981.

It would take a man an ocean away and decades beyond to begin a search for Helen Murphy's son, who vanished on German soil.

Early this year, Enrico Schwartz heard about what had happened to John Murphy and the rest of the B-17 bomber crew. He's found remains of missing servicemen before.

"It's like a time tunnel," Schwartz said. "You're walking back in time. You're there."

He set out to find Murphy and the men, taking his first steps back in time. He met an old woman in a village near Beckendorf who had a story to tell. 

***

Schwartz wants to put things back where they belong -- to return servicemen to their families.

He makes a living as an IT consultant. But a​​s founder and lead researcher of the Missing Allied Air Crew Research Team, he has solved cases previously thought hopeless, even finding remains of servicemen and entire crews that had been missing for decades.

First, families have to trust him. He has a file of references from solved cases and a handful of news articles about the men he's found, whose remains have been sent home. Some have been buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Schwartz has mostly worked on cases of planes shot down, where the men were killed on impact.

But the Murphy case is different.

Schwartz heard a rumor third-hand about a crew of American soldiers whose plane went down over eastern Germany near the end of World War II. The men were alive when they landed, but some were rescued and the rest were never seen or heard from again. The rumor was that civilians killed them just hours before the village was liberated.

At the time, the story sounded crazy to Schwartz. War crimes happened, but this seemed too unusual to be true. 

A short time later, he learned that a woman who lived in the village near Beckendorf, now in her 90s, was the original source of the story about the Americans. She was alive. And she was willing to talk with him.

He made plans to visit. He researched the missing crew. 

An old grainy photograph of the men in his file caught the eye of Schwartz's 7-year-old daughter. She pointed at Murphy. He looked nice, she said. In the photo, he is crouched in the front row, his cap pushed back off his forehead, a slight smile on his face. 

Daddy, we've got to find them, she said.

He agreed.

Schwartz traveled five hours to meet the old woman.

She told him that she had seen Americans parachute to the ground. 

He knew that wasn't true. Research told him the woman couldn't have seen the men land. He knew there was something she was trying to hide. He believes there was someone she was trying to protect.

He didn't push her to tell the truth. Though he wanted to know more about what really happened, he was already hooked.

Schwartz is driven to help Murphy's family and the other families find out what happened to their loved ones. 

"You talk with people and they say, yeah, in the last days of war, bad things happen," Schwartz said. But these young guys, he said, were hours away from going home.

The context of how these men went missing during World War II isn't important, Schwartz said He doesn't want to be called a historian or a history buff. He's an investigator who feels called to uncover the past.

He planned a return visit to the old woman. He said he wasn't sure of her background, but he believed her father might have had a part in Murphy's and the others' disappearance. He believed she had been bound to silence.

The day before his return visit, her pastor called. The woman was dead. She had killed herself.

He was devastated. He would learn no more from her.

But talking with her during that first visit convinced Schwartz that a war crime had been committed.

And the old woman had given him an important clue about where he might find evidence of what happened to John Murphy.

***

He was a son of Delta, Pa. Two years after he went missing in the war, they named the local VFW post after Lt. John S. Murphy

"Murph" made a strong impression on Kendall Douglas Beakes, a childhood friend who, in 2001, wrote a book about him.

They grew up on Main Street in Delta. They were the same age, but Beakes had moved from Baltimore and was a class behind.

Murphy was a natural athlete and had a knack for mechanical things.

Beakes fondly remembered how they used to roam the farm fields and woods in the area.

They usually met at the dirt lane near the Murphys' garden gate and walked to school together. They talked about school, sports and Boy Scouts. Often, Murphy would change the conversation to what he was tinkering with in his basement workshop.

"We were not oblivious to, but rarely mentioned, the havoc of the war that raged in Europe," Beakes wrote.

After they graduated from Delta High, Murphy in 1941 and Beakes a year later, they were both drafted, Beakes into the Army and Murphy into the Army Air Corps.

Beakes wasn't surprised that Murphy trained to be a navigator, which required great skill and precision.

In his book, Beakes said that through the decades, a flood of memories washed over him each time entered or exited Delta and passed the VFW post named for his friend.

For 70 years, the memorial post kept John Murphy's name alive. But in late winter or early spring, the post closed. Membership had dwindled and expenses were mounting.

Murphy's cousins have adopted some of Beakes' stories as their own. Their memories are sparse, as they were children when their cousin left for war and then disappeared. Becky Hively, 75, was just a toddler.

"Missing in action -- missing -- that there's never a closure, that's the hardest part," Hively said.

The not really knowing is what was so devastating to their family, Hively said, especially for John Murphy's mother.

***

Helen Murphy suffered losses no parent or wife should, her nieces said.

Born Helen Stewart in 1900, she married James Murphy, and they had two sons, John Stewart Murphy, born in 1923, and James William Murphy, born in 1926, whom they raised in Delta.

Helen Murphy's husband was badly injured in an accident at the slate quarry, and he suffered with rheumatoid arthritis. She cared for him until he died in 1969.

"When we went to visit, Uncle Jim would be in the bed, Aunt Helen would be there with him," Shaull remembered.

Both of Helen Murphy's sons were sent off to fight in World War II.

When word came that her eldest, John Murphy, was lost in Germany, her youngest was sent home.

Once home, James William Murphy, whom they called Pete, started a family. But he fell ill with Hodgkin's disease, and in 1955, at 29 years old, he died.

Most of the second half of Helen Murphy's life was spent searching for any word about John.

Helen Murphy didn't burden her family with her mission.

But she never stopped searching.

"All I really know is how Aunt Helen hunted ... after he was missing," Hively said. "They contacted everybody they knew. I remember that so well."

***

Kay Shaull, 74, said she and two of her sisters, Hively and Rose Heaps, 85, are the wives of farmers, born and raised in southern York County. They are private people. So when Shaull heard a stranger in Germany was trying to find out what had happened to her cousin, she was skeptical.

Even if Enrico Schwartz's outfit and his work were legitimate, Shaull told a reporter who had called, she didn't initially see the sense in dredging up the past after 70-some years.

What could Schwartz find after all this time?

In one of many letters Helen Murphy wrote during her search -- the recipient is identified only as a Mr. Hilbert -- she acknowledged it would be nearly impossible to find a trace of her son.

I realize there is just one chance in a million that you can tell us anything, she wrote on Aug. 1, 1951. But I wanted to take that one chance.

As the nieces talked about Schwartz's mission, they realized what that might mean.

And so they've given their blessing for Schwartz to keep searching.

Schwartz understands the odds. In fact, in a conversation in early May, he unwittingly echoed the words of a Gold Star mother written in a letter nearly 70 years ago.

"There's probably a million reasons why this can't happen," he said, "but maybe there will be one lucky one."

***

The old woman in the village near Beckendorf, Germany, where the B-17 went down, took to her death the truth of what might have befallen John Murphy and his crew. But before taking her own life, she had given Schwartz what could be a vital clue:

She led him to the place where Murphy and the others were beaten or killed.

From that moment, Schwartz focused on finding someone else who would point out that same location without knowing what he was looking for.

He has found that second source.

Schwartz believes human remains might be somewhere on that site.

He secured land rights to begin surveying.

He thinks of Murphy, captured by German soldiers on April 10, 1945, feeling safe, hearing the approaching American troops in the distance, believing he'd be sent home to his family when the town was liberated.

Schwartz pictures those American troops entering the village, rescuing many Americans, but unaware there were four more nearby.

"I have to find now, after 72 years, that which should have been found 72 years before," Schwartz said.

***

On a blue-sky day in May, Shaull, Hively and Heaps talked over breakfast at a Quarryville diner about how unlikely it would be for Schwartz to recover anything.

The diner sits just west of the center of the small town in rural southern Lancaster County, across the Susquehanna River from where John Murphy grew up, made friends, and went off to war, never to return.

Would it matter, after his parents and brother have passed on, after the VFW named in his memory has closed, and after more than 70 years have passed, to finally have an answer?

They looked around the table at one another, pondering what it would be like to have John come home.

Then Shaull spoke.

"If they ever find him, it would be wonderful," she said.

There's a spot, she said, waiting for him in the Chanceford Presbyterian Cemetery.

"We'd put him with his parents."

The pilot's account of what happened April 10, 1945

The pilot of Lt. John Murphy's downed B-17 bomber, Ken Dolan, described what happened when his men parachuted from a damaged plane in documentation provided by researcher Enrico Schwartz.

Dolan injured his leg when he landed. Dolan wrote that he was captured and taken to a nearby village hall where he found four of his crewmen, Ken Lamer, from Iowa Falls, Iowa, Jack Marks, from Lakewood, Ohio, Charles Sarockas, from Chicago, Illinois, and John S. Murphy, from Delta, Pennsylvania. Dolan saw the men were uninjured and sitting in "relaxed positions."

He said that several hours later, two guards led Dolan and the others out the building and down the road. Dolan's leg was badly injured, and when it became apparent that he wouldn't be able to go on, he sat down and refused to continue. One guard took Dolan back to the village hall and the other continued down the road with Lamer, Marks, Sarockas and Murphy.

There, Dolan found another of his crew, Larry Maxim, from Oxford, Massachusetts. Maxim also had an injured leg.

The two were loaded into a wagon and taken down the same road in the same direction that Dolan had been traveling earlier. But he didn't see them, although  they traveled for several hours. Eventually, they ended up in a village about 20 miles west-southwest of the city of Magdeburg.

The next day, Dolan said, the area was liberated by Americans.

Several days later, Dolan learned that three of his crew, Ralph Covert, from Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, David Nicolette, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Oscar De Man, from Depew, New York, had been returned to the United States.

But the others were still missing.

A short time later, the area where the men went down came under control of the Soviet Army, which prevented any searches for decades.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the York Daily Record.

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