ST. LOUIS -- The remains of a World War II pilot killed in a midair collision during training over England finally returned to his southern Illinois hometown Thursday, ending a decades-old mystery that might never have been solved had a group not happened upon the buried wreckage in search of the other aircraft.
The remains of Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Charles “Butch” Moritz were flown into St. Louis from Hawaii before being driven to Effingham, where on May 5 the pilot who died when he was 21 will be interred with full military honors.
“It’s a big relief,” said niece Pamela Landers, 69, of Nisswa, Minn., his oldest living relative.
Moritz, a member of the 496th Fighter Group stationed in England, was 21 when he died on June 7, 1944, after his P-51C Mustang collided in midair with another U.S. aircraft over Lincolnshire, England. Eyewitnesses reported seeing Moritz’s fighter plane spiraling out of the sky before slamming into the ground, exploding and bursting into flames.
The other pilot parachuted to safety.
Last September, members of a private English group that searches for vintage aircraft were scouring the countryside for the plane that collided with Moritz’s aircraft when they happened upon Moritz’s remains and what little was left of his P-51, both buried 18 feet in the ground. Found at the scene were Moritz dog tags, ID bracelet and a wallet containing papers with his name.
The next month, a U.S. Defense Department division reached Landers, the niece who helped verify her late uncle’s identity—just not without a sputter. Landers hung up on one of the initial calls from the U.S. government, figuring it was a solicitation.
“This brings closure to the family,” Landers said, lamenting that Moritz’s two brothers and two sisters are all deceased. “My big regret is that they aren’t here to see this. My mom, who was his older sister, died two years ago.”
For decades, Landers said, Moritz’s siblings “would talk about him every now and then, and it was sort of stressful not knowing all of those years what happened to him.”
“There were all kinds of suppositions in the family. They didn’t know if he died over England, over Germany. All we knew is that he was gone,” she said. “We long ago assumed we’d never know what happened to him.”
Moritz graduated from Effingham High School and later attended a New Mexico military academy for one year before attending the University of Illinois, where he played polo. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in August 1942 and left the United States on April 29, 1944, just weeks before he was killed.
Landers expects as many as 20 relatives to converge on Effingham to say their final farewells to Moritz at a graveside next month, bringing with them mementos of the late flyer. One of Landers’ cousins has Moritz’s silver baby cup. Another has Moritz’s wings, while Landers clings to the personal items recovered at the crash site.
“We’re gonna put all of that together and decide how to pass that along in the family,” Landers said of the get-together she expects will include each relative sharing their tidbits about what they’ve been told about Moritz, hopefully piecing together a mosaic of his life. “It’s wonderful. We’re going to be able to pool all of that. It just makes me really sad we never got to know him. He sounds like a really great guy.”