written by Carole Popchock

While listening to VBC Greatest Generation Live programs about the Air War in World War II, I remembered a family story about the death of my father’s first cousin, Frank Ladesic.

Frank was a B-24 pilot in the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy. My family had always understood that Frank had been shot down upon returning from a mission over Yugoslavia. No body was ever recovered. Neither was the plane, nor any of the crew.

That’s all we knew. Most of this information had come from the father of Frank’s co-pilot, Ralph K. Jones. Ralph’s father claimed to have gotten his information from an eyewitness in the Army Air Force.

Frank’s mother, Anna Ladesic, my great-aunt, always held out hope that her Frank would be found. He never was.

I started digging into the story online. Several clicks took me to a Fifteenth Air Force website (https://15thaf.org).

There, on a spreadsheet, I found a spreadsheet with Frank’s cold case listed. I was stunned by the details:

Date: April 4, 1944

Type: B-24H Liberator

Serial: 42-64495

Unit: 737th BS/454th BG

Fate: Shot Down

Cause: Accident

Target: Practice

Nation: Italy

Location: Adriatic practice mission

Nothing except “shot down” matched my family story.

Frank, it appeared, had been killed by friendly fire in training in Italy. Why hadn’t any of his family known?

A note on the spreadsheet indicated the source of this information: Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) 3717. MACRs were created immediately after a plane was lost, and they contained all the information that could be collected about the crew and the incident of the plane’s disappearance or destruction.

I first turned to the National Archives in Washington, DC, and College Park, Maryland.

The backlog for records retrieval there during COVID was so large, an archivist suggested I search instead for an Individual Deceased Personnel Files (IDPF) at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, noting that they are often catch-all files for the deceased. Every once in a while, a MACR is slipped into an IDPF. I might get lucky.

I got a note months later that they’d discovered my first-cousin-once-removed’s IDPF. I paid a copying fee, waited another three months, and, Voila!, an email appeared my inbox containing a link to the IDPF. I clicked it, downloaded the file, and began poring over its 63 pages.

Sure enough, I was lucky. MACR 3717, dated April 7, 1944—three days after my cousin’s plane disappeared–was there, toward the back.

According to the MACR, on April 4, 1944, Frank’s B-24H, nicknamed “Hot Rock,” was on its way to a bombing mission in Bucharest, Romania, with the rest of the 737th Bomb Squadron. It was Frank’s 21stmission. This wasn’t training.

Frank’s airplane was in position #4 in the squadron combat box formation. Frank’s right wingman, Lt. Orville Whitworth, was in position #5. Whitworth provided an eyewitness account.

Once the bombers had taken off from Italy and formed up, the formation set a course 70 degrees to the target, climbing to altitude as they crossed the Adriatic Sea.

Whitworth specified that they entered a solid overcast at 42°N 18°45”E. Each plane in the formation made a left turn and attempted to top the clouds at 6,000ft.

Frank’s wingman noted that he saw the Hot Rock make the turn, all four engines working fine.

That’s the last he saw of the “Hot Rock.” They were 16 miles off the southern coast of Yugoslavia.

Another unnamed witness in the MACR reported seeing two crew members bail. No search was made for the missing plane.

Almost 16 months later, after the war in Europe was over, the Army issued a Casualty Branch Memorandum as part of a required “second review and determination of status under the Missing Persons Act.”

According to the memo, the 737th Squadron HQ received a message that the Hot Rock was on fire due to what was believed to be mechanical difficulties. A witness had seen the plane’s number three engine on fire. The “Hot Rock” crew itself had radioed that their plane was in trouble and they planned to ditch in the Adriatic.

“No other crew saw the plane after it left the formation,” recorded the memo, “no one saw the plane ditch; and no parts of the plane were found, nor were any survivors picked up.”

The radio message giving the coordinates placed the “Hot Rock” between Albania and Italy at 13:58 hours. The other planes in the 737th Squadron reached their target in the Bucharest area at 14:14 hours.

So, the Hot Rock never made it to Bucharest, as my family had always believed.

Casualty Branch Memorandum ended with the recommendation that findings of deaths be made in the cases of the officers and crew of the “Hot Rock,” with the date of death be shown as the date of the memo.

The crew of the “Hot Rock” became Non-Recoverable Case #4679.

Three years after the war’s end, another document was place in Cousin Frank’s IDPF:  Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Branch Report, American Graves Registration Service, Mediterranean Zone, April 12, 1948.

This I&R report confirmed efforts to discover the remains of Frank’s crew and other missing in 1947. Researchers searched the east coastline of Italy and west coastline of Yugoslavia, including the adjacent islands, and collected statements from town and church officials in the region. They certified that no remains of deceased Americans were collected or interred in their jurisdiction.

A year later, another document was added: Review of Circumstances Surrounding Disappearance of Personnel Presumed Dead by the Determination Unit, Casualty Section, Personnel Actions Branch, April 18, 1949.

This review recapped all previous statements on the record about inquiries into the fate of the “Hot Rock,” it’s officers and crew. It added that captured German records had been searched to no avail.

“The fact of their deaths appears a certainty,” it states grimly. But it challenges the recommendation that the remains be declared unrecoverable.

Rather, the April 18, 1949 review suggests that the crew still be considered missing because there were no eyewitnesses to a crash, and because of the reports of two men parachuting from the burning plane.

Thus, under Section 9 of the Missing Persons Act, there was insufficient information to warrant issuance of death reports.

The April review’s determination was overturned four months later in the Non-Recoverable Case Record of Review and Approval of August 1949.

This review concluded that the remains of the crew of the Hot Rock are not recoverable, listing an impressive array of sources that had been searched for clues, from sea burial records to German files.

The case of the Hot Rock was reviewed one last time on January 30, 1951 (“Memorialization of Non-Recoverable Remains of World War II”) and was officially closed as a Deferred Search Case on June 2, 1952.

Meanwhile, while all this searching and reporting was going on, my family, specifically, my Great-Aunt Anna Ladesic, Frank’s mother, was told nothing.

All she received was a telegram in April 1944 telling her Frank was missing.

Then, on October 7, 1944, the Army Effects Bureau sent Anna a questionnaire to verify she was next of kin.

Two weeks later, the Kansas City Quartermaster Depot wrote to Aunt Anna to let her know that two cartons would be arriving with Frank’s personal effects.

The following summer, the Army sent another package containing Frank’s flight record.

That was it. She never learned the truth of what the Army had discovered. Instead, she relied on hearsay from the co-pilot’s father.

Why were families in World War II not notified of the results of all the searches, investigations, case reviews, and conclusions in the disappearance of their loved ones?

Families like mine could have used—and deserved—whatever closure such information would have provided.

Frank Ladesic left a large family behind. I have told them about my findings. Like me, they are proud of their cousin’s service and sacrifice in World War II.