Making a Difference: UW volunteers help locate and bring remains of America’s missing heroes home

Finding answers for families decades later
Published: Nov. 11, 2020 at 5:00 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2020 at 10:31 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -Reflecting on a father he never really knew, but always looked up to, Frank Fazekas, Jr. said, "I never knew my Dad...but still he was my role model, my hero, the person I wanted to emulate. I was about 6 months old when he was killed, which was in 1944.”

Lt. Frank Fazekas, Sr. died when his fighter plane crashed in a French farm field during WWII. Until 2017, Lt. Fazekas' remains lay missing amid the wreckage of his fallen fighter plane.

Lt. Frank Fazekas, Sr.
Lt. Frank Fazekas, Sr.(Fazekas family photo)

In 2017, a two-year effort by a group made up mostly of volunteers at the University of Wisconsin paid off. They located the wreckage of Lt. Fazekas' plane and human remains, eventually identified as those of Lt. Fazekas.

Working in tandem with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the volunteers with the University of Wisconsin Missing in Action Recovery and Identification Project (UW MIA RIP) work to locate and repatriate the remains of American military members unaccounted for. According to the DPAA, “The remains of almost 82,000 Americans are still missing.”

UW Anthropology and History major Alicia Lawson’s a member of the UW MIA RIP team. She said, “A lot of times the last things these families have heard is a message from the War Department, saying, ‘I’m sorry Mr. and Mrs., your son has gone missing…. our deepest sympathy.’ You talk to them and you realize every birthday, every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, there’s something missing and they don’t know why it is. It’s called an ambiguous loss because they don’t have the closure of having a body. It’s constantly wondering, are they still alive? Are they going to come home? Are they missing me? Are they out there somewhere?”

Lawson added, “I got very passionate about this because of my Grandpa, who was on a B-29 in WWII as a flight engineer. My Grandfather could have easily been one of the people on one of these planes.”

Dr. Ryan Wubben is a UW-Health physician, who also volunteers for the project. He said, “It’s a multi-stage process over what typically is a couple of years--never mind that we’re doing this 75, 78 years after the fact. Seeing these cases to fruition, and successfully completing these cases, just brings a sense of satisfaction.”

Since 2014, the UW MIA RIP team has successfully located and repatriated three missing members of our military, with a fourth case well underway.

When asked about the work these UW volunteers are doing, Frank Fazekas, Jr.--a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and Vietnam veteran himself-- said, “To be able to bring those remains back, they gave so much to this country. I think that’s terribly important to anybody that has any sense of patriotism at all.”

Fazekas was able to go to France to visit the excavation site and see some of the wreckage the team had unearthed. He was able to hold the plane’s control stick. Fazekas said, "To know that I could touch that, where my Dad’s hands were at one time, was quite dramatic… and it meant a lot to me to be able to do that. "

Wubben added, “To be standing next to Frank, the son, as he looks onto the excavation site of the crash site of his father’s P-47...I mean it’s almost indescribable. It’s something that will stay with me forever.”

While Frank Fazekas, Jr. is sad that his mother Theresa passed away before learning the full story of what had happened to her missing husband, he was grateful his father’s remains could be returned to Arlington National Cemetery for a burial with full military honors. He was also able to bury his mother’s ashes alongside his father. “To me, bringing the two of them together again was just fantastic to be able to do that.”

After working on the case for two years, Wubben said, while emotionally reflecting on being at Arlington National Cemetery for the ceremony, “I’m almost getting verklempt now--it was challenging to maintain composure just knowing that we had a small part in facilitating that…and making that happen meant a tremendous amount.”

Fazekas, who saluted his father’s casket at the ceremony--not only as a son, but as one military pilot to another-- said, “To have him there with all of those heroes is wonderful to me. He is home.”

To find out more about the UW MIA RIP click here

To read more about the lengthy search for Lt. Fazekas' crash site and remains click here

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