Wantagh veteran Tom Mctigue is one of many who served in World War II and lost loved ones during the war. But Mctigue may have found his brother’s remains.
For Mctigue, who celebrated his 92nd birthday on Monday, the feelings associated with the loss of his older brother, John, are still raw. John was just 23 when he was killed on Aug. 24, 1944, just 12 days after his birthday. He was shot down near Merchburg, Germany, while piloting a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress — a strategic bomber — two months after Tom entered the Navy. John’s squadron’s assignment was to bomb a water works in Merchburg, in the Rhineland region of Germany, near Cologne. John had previously flown bombing runs over Normandy, France, that June, in support of the D-Day invasion.
His remains were never recovered, although German authorities retrieved a body in 1944 that they tentatively identified as Mctigue. He
was buried with three other Allied airmen.
Tom Mctigue, who spent 44 months in the service, joined the Navy nine days after turning 17. He was an apprentice seaman, then a seaman first class, a petty officer first class and a dispersing clerk third class — a payroll man.
In 2005, Mctigue visited the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Ga. “I got a list of the crew members,” he said, who were with his brother when his plane was shot down. The following year, Mctigue contacted George DeMott, the plane’s surviving radioman, who was living in Valley Stream. “He said, ‘You shouldn’t have waited so long — I’m dying of cancer,’” Mctigue recounted, “but he came over to our house and he told me what happened that day.”
DeMott recalled the plane’s body being hit and split in half, and how he survived by parachuting out of it.
After further investigation, Mctigue located the plane’s navigator, 98-year-old John Ketchner, in Baltimore in 2016. “I contacted him and he answered the phone and I told him who I was,” Mctigue said with tears in his eyes. “I was talking about 2nd Lt. John, and he said, ‘That was my buddy.’ He told me what happened that day also.”
Ketchner told Mctigue that the last thing he heard John say was, “Number 4’s on fire, get out,” before Ketchner was blown out of the plane. Ketchner suffered a fractured skull, and survived eight months in a prison camp before he was liberated and sent to France. He came back to the U.S. in June 1945.
In 2016, Mctigue received a letter from Jana Churchwell Scott, a genealogist and military researcher from Concord, N.C., who said she believed she might have located John’s remains. “She said her hobby was to try and locate missing airmen,” Tom recalled. “She had the whole story about where the plane went down.”
Scott said that during and after the war, many dead soldiers who could not be positively identified were listed as “unknown” and buried in military cemeteries overseas. “There are files that were stored in our National Archives still attached to each of these unknown graves, and those are referred to as X-files,” she said.
Those files, Scott said, contain information about each serviceman, including the date and location each was recovered and any unique characteristics of the body. “Basically, it was a coroner’s report,” she said.
While Scott and her associates worked on the case involving a B17 crew on a mission in Germany, she reached out to family members of the servicemen whose remains, she believed, had been found, including Mctigue. According to the story she shared with him, Mctigue said, the remains of four of the servicemen were put in caskets by the caretaker of a cemetery in Lindenthal, Germany. “Of course the bodies were badly damaged by fire,” he added.
At Scott’s suggestion, Mctigue reached out to the Army to ask officials to look into the case. He communicated with them for roughly two and a half years. “They finally agreed that this is a good case,” he said, “that the remains may well be my brother’s and his other crewmen’s.”
While Mctigue was in talks with the Army, the remains were disinterred from graves in the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-Avold, France, in July 2017. Mctigue, his nephew Frank Karlsson and his niece Theresa Rooney were sent DNA kits that same year, which they sent back to the Army in Washington, D.C., to be examined. The remains from France were sent to a lab in Omaha, Neb., in August 2017.
Mctigue and his godson, Michael Kozlowski, 65, traveled to Schönau, Germany, in September 2017, to say goodbye to the family of Mctigue’s wife, Anna, who had died in March 2015, at age 89. Mctigue and Kozlowski also went to France, to the cemetery in Saint-Avold. Long-unidentified remains of servicemen and women had been identified before, Mctigue said, “So I got my hopes up.”
“The information that I got from the Army is that they have two years to identify the remains,” he said. “I spoke to the people down in Kentucky who handle these things, and they told me so far, that they have nothing for me, but they’re going to keep on trying. So that’s where I stand now.”