WWII soldiers with their sons
The Way I Was

Mystery Partially Solved: a Memorial Day Remembrance for 1st Lt. Eugene H. Karner

WWII soldiers with their sons
U.S. Army Air Pilot, 1st Lieutenant Eugene H. Karner enjoys a fishing outing with his son, Ken. 1943.

At long last, we know What was in a Military file about Dad’s death, labeled “Secret/Restricted” in 1944; but we still don’t know Why it had to remain a government-guarded secret for nearly 70 years. 

This Memorial Day (and every year) we remember my father-in-law, who was declared dead in May of 1944, during WWII. For years, we tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to discover the details surrounding his disappearance. We were always told that it was “Top Secret” information, not to be released to anyone. In the 1960’s, Ken (Eugene’s son; my husband) even approached the powerfully influential Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Ken served as executive chef at many fundraisers for the Senator. Dirksen assured Ken that he would get to the bottom of the story, and soon reported back his findings. Those were:

  • Senator Dirksen pulled all the strings he could, but they wouldn’t let him near the file. It was Top Secret. He was sorry; and intrigued. He had previously gained access to supposedly secret files, but this one was TOP SECRET.

This is what Ken and his family had known since WWII:

  • In early May, 1944, 1st Lieutenant Eugene H. Karner was driven to his house in a government limo, accompanied by Military Police, to spend a few brief hours with his wife and sons before he left on a mission. He wasn’t allowed to tell them where he was going. He had a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. He was a pilot.
  • One week later, the family was notified he was missing. His plane had gone done in a storm, the officials said, over the Atlantic.
  • Eugene’s sons received, among their survivor benefits, educational support. Ken was offered an appointment to West Point, which he turned down because he preferred their other offer–a full tuition scholarship, plus a generous monthly check for living expenses, at any college he wanted to attend. He chose to attend Northern Illinois University.
  • But where had his father been going when he disappeared? What attempts had been made to find him? No one was talking. The secrecy surrounding the incident caused Ken to imagine many scenarios, including one in which his father had been recruited to be a spy but had to change his identity, was still alive, and would someday return to put his arms around the son who desperately missed him.
  • All the war department ever told him was that his father was a great pilot and a war hero, and he should be proud. Pride, however, did nothing to assuage the bitter bereavement of a fatherless boy. If anything, it made him miss his father even more.

Recently, I discovered online this photocopy of a 6-page Secret/Restricted Missing Air Crew Report.

This is what we know now:

  • On May 4, 1944 a B-253 aircraft with serial number 43-27548 departed Ascension Island on a ferry mission with an intended destination of Roberts Field (now Roberts International Airport) in Liberia. The 5-man crew included:
    • Pilot, 1st Lieutenant Eugene H. Karner
    • Co-Pilot 2nd Lieutenant Michael J. Meno
    • Navigator 2nd Lieutenant Dalton L. Blackburn
    • Engineer Technical Sergeant Francis E. Herlihy
    • Radio Operator PFC Roland R. Blanchette
  • Last radio contact was 4 May 1944 at 0937 from location 1′ S 12’20” W. Plane lost at sea. Disappearance believed to be caused by frontal conditions.
  • Beginning on May 5, 1944 and every day for 10 days, 7 planes were sent out to try to locate the missing aircraft. Three craft were assigned to search the area to the right of the course, 2 on course, and 2 left of course. (That’s a total of 70 manned flights, to search for 1 missing plane!!) In addition, a OA-10 was assigned on 3 occasions to search an area 20 miles wide from 00’30” N to 01’00″S. 
  • No trace found of plane or crew.
Secret/Restricted WWII Military File, finally released
Secret/Restricted WWII Military File, finally released

What we still don’t know:

  • To whom in Liberia was the briefcase intended to be delivered? What was in it?
  • What were the Allies doing in Liberia in May, 1944? Why was this mission classified as secret and restricted?
  • Where are the files with the rest of the information about the mission?

National Moment of Remembrance

The “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”

If you have any knowledge or insight into this mystery, please contact me. Meanwhile, if you feel moved to, you can join Ken and me at 3 p.m. (your time, wherever you happen to be) on Monday, May 25, 2015, for a 1 minute remembrance of his beloved father Eugene F. Karner and his crew, also remembering all who have lost their lives in service to country.

Do you cherish memories of loved ones, strong memories that refuse to die?

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20 thoughts on “Mystery Partially Solved: a Memorial Day Remembrance for 1st Lt. Eugene H. Karner”

  1. Wow! I would certainly have to review my history of the times and events. One certainly does come up with all sorts of scenarios about what may have happened. We know that we aren’t being told everything. Whatever was in the briefcase and to whom it was going must have been extremely important.

    1. Exactly, Darlene. There is very little information available about what the Allies were doing in Liberia during that time. But — someone knows! And we’d like to know, too.

  2. Your husband was such a cute little boy, Tracy. It is such a shame when there are private instances where for one reason or another, military info is considered Top Secret. Fascinating and curious. Sorry for his not being able to know up until your recent findings. You are a sweet wife and daughter in law. Happy Memorial Day. I hopE all who have lost loved ones
    MIA or other situations find peace.

  3. Tracy, this is amazing! What a novel or movie it would make.
    It’s too bad that for so long the family had no true answers; it’s difficult enough to heal over such a loss, but to have the cloud of unknowing hanging over them for so many years made it even worse.

    1. Thanks, Violet. It will require some very diligent sleuthing, but I’m gearing up for it. I’d like to find out what happened; the story has always intrigued me, and not only because it’s personal. I think it would be interesting for others, too. I’m hoping to perhaps, someday, turn it into a novel.

  4. Oh, Tracy, it’s so sad to read about Ken’s wish that his father was somehow still alive. Closure is so important in bereavement. I hope you get some answers.

    1. Yes — it was a really sad, sad story, and very much affected Ken’s childhood, even his adulthood.

      He told me today, that my write-up helped him finally put some closure on it. There’s a lot more to the story–and I’ve thought about writing it, after I finish all the other projects I’ve committed to do, first.

  5. What an amazing and intriguing story, Tracy. I look at that sweet little boy in the photo and grieve for his loss. I hope you do find some closure.

    1. Thank you, Kathy. I was just reading a poem yesterday, by my friend Alice Fogel, in which she explores how others’ losses, even those of strangers, can effect us. I grieve for that little boy, too. I think Ken has finally felt some closure–it definitely helps having found this information.

      1. I’m happy to hear this, Tracy. It reminds me of the Maya Angela quote ” nothing worse than an untold story” (paraphrased). I hope you’ve opened the door for more answers to complete this story.

  6. What an incredibly moving story Tracy. It was bad enough that Ken had to lose his beloved father so young, but then with so few answers as to what really happened makes it even worse. I do hope that eventually, the full truth will be told. I hope you had a blessed and joyful Memorial Day weekend. Here in the UK, everyone stops at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month for one minute’s silence whether at work or school or home, on what we call Rememberance Day. I tear up everytime I hear TAPS… ❤

    1. Hi, Sherri — thanks for popping over. We had a wonderfully relaxing, and at the same time productive (in closet reorganization terms) weekend. Ken is results-oriented, and it makes him feel good to accomplish things.

      I think that airing the story was very helpful to him. Put some closure on it…. (and we both teared up when they played TAPS at the memorial concert).

      1. Oh that sound so good. I like that sense of accomplishment too in sorting out drawers and closets and all that. Really need to get to it, so thanks for the reminder!
        And how wonderful that you writing about it has helped Ken gain some closure…an emotional time for you both. Hugs to you dear Tracy ❤

  7. Not knowing … for all those years. How incredibly frustrating and sad for your husband and his family. I’m glad your husband has found some closure over the discovery of recent documents about his Dad’s flight. I do hope that you get to the bottom of this mystery. There are many things that the government has classified.

    Some reasons are truly mystifying. The story on the Navajo Code Talkers and their significance in WWII, for example, “received no recognition until the declassification of the operation in 1968. In 1982, the code talkers were given a Certificate of Recognition by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who also named August 14, 1982 as “Navajo Code Talkers Day”.” (Wikipedia)

    That makes me wonder what else has been kept from us … and why.

    1. Why is a good question, but I fear we’ll never get any straight answers to that!

      Did they ever recognize the Ojibwe code talkers? Members of the tribe in Wisconsin have told me that they used Ojibwe as code, because it is the hardest language in the world to “crack.”

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