»I Was Told That This Was a Very Mountainous Country and That It Was Difficult to Find a Way in Such Cases.«
During WW2, there were a number of air formations operating in the Slovenian airspace, especially those of the 15th US Air Force. Increase in Allied aircraft activity led to an increase in a number of planes that crashed or were shot down. When discussing the issue of wounded pilots and their rescue, less attention was given to the issue of the actual burials and subsequent reburials of the pilots who had died. Preserved among the records of the archival fond of the Federal Committee for the Organization of the Transfer of the Fallen Soldiers for Slovenia are tens of letters of inquiry, reports on graves of the deceased pilots, and letters on possible reburials. This month’s archivalia offers a look at the mysterious case of the search for the pilot Martin F. O'Callaghan.
Searching For the American P-38 Fighter Pilot Martin F. O'Callaghan
On April 6, 2022, the President of the Republic of Slovenia Borut Pahor and the USA Ambassador to Slovenia Jamie Lindler Harpootlian commemorated Slovenian-American Friendship Day, which this year coincided with the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The date for the annual Slovenian-American Friendship Day was chosen in remembrance on a tragic event, when an American »Flying Fortress« B-17 bomber was shot down over the surrounding area of Polzela on March 19, 1944. On that particular day, B-17 bomber »Dark Eyes«, along with 34 other bombers, was on its way to target a factory in the Austrian town of Steyr. It never reached its destination, as it was shot down over Celje and crashed at the foot of the Oljka mountain. Eight out of ten members of the crew died and were buried in the cemetery in Andraž nad Polzelo. A year after the war, they were reburied, and in 2014, a memorial stone was unveiled at the cemetery in their memory.
During WW2, there were a number of air formations operating in the Slovenian airspace, especially those of the 15th US Air Force, founded on December 1, 1943. Having occupied Sicily and the southern part of Italy, Allied air forces, based in Foggia and other nearby airports, could now reach targets in France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and even those located in the German Reich itself, including in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Some of these missions, especially those undertaken by “Flying Fortress” bombers, such as B-17 bomber and B-24 Liberator, were carried out over Slovenia. Slovenian territory became of key importance in rescuing wounded Allied pilots, particularly after June 1943, when Allied missions were established here, following a visit to the Slovenian partisan headquarters by a delegation headed by Major William Jones.
Increase in Allied aircraft activity led to an increase in a number of planes that crashed or were shot down. If we take a look at this month's archivalia, which is a letter of December 5, 1946, written by the American Graves Registration Service with its seat in Belgrade, we can see that according to their data, a total of around 500 planes »disappeared« in the Slovenian territory. Later figures are slightly lower. In his book Zlomljena krila, Matija Žgajnar states that according to incomplete lists, a minimum of 1050 American planes were believed to have been shot down over the territory of Yugoslavia, with 244 of them crashing down over Slovenian territory. 806 pilots were believed to have been rescued, mostly with the help from the Partisans and Allied missions, while 391 of the pilots died.
When discussing the issue of wounded pilots and their rescue, less attention was given to the issue of the actual burials and subsequent reburials of the pilots who had died. According to data, obtained by the American Graves Registration Service, by the end of 1946, the bodies of over 100 Allied pilots had been exhumed and returned to their hometowns or to their final place of rest in military cemeteries. Although the issue of the reburial of the fallen soldiers was tackled already during wartime, it wasn’t until after the war that the authorities really engaged in it. The authority responsible for the organization of reburials was the Federal Committee for the Organization of the Transfer of the Fallen Soldiers for Slovenia, which operated within the Ministry of the Interior. The federal committee then had a network of subordinate district, local and other committees. In addition to taking care of the reburial of Slovenian soldiers, such committees also dealt with the issues of arranging reburying of foreign soldiers, who lost their lives in Slovenia and were buried on Slovenian soil. Already in its founding circular of November 24, 1945, the federal committee notified all Liberation Front district committees and all national liberation committees that British and American authorities would send to Yugoslavia their special commissions to record and locate graves of the fallen Allied soldiers and pilots. The committees were instructed to send detailed information about the locations of the graves and were told that “… graves of Allied soldiers and pilots must be fenced and nicely decorated”. The federal committee sent the same instruction out again on January 26, 1947, either because district committees were too slow in sending in their reports or because there was a certain pressure from the American Graves Registration Service. The federal committee again instructed its district committees to send in all the gathered information about the planes that had been shot down and about the killed pilots, which was needed to help identify individual persons and planes.
Preserved among the records of the archival fond SI AS 281 - Federal Committee for the Organization of the Transfer of the Fallen Soldiers for Slovenia - there are tens of letters of inquiry, reports on graves of the deceased pilots, and letters on possible reburials. Documents reveal that some of the identification cases were relatively simple, while others required more extensive and lengthy examination. This month’s archivalia offers a look at the mysterious case of the search for the pilot Martin F. O'Callaghan, born on July 23, 1922 in Memphis in the American state of Texas.
In a moving letter, written on February 22, 1946 and addressed to the Chief of Police in Maribor, we read about a plea of a mother, whose son, Lieutenant Martin F. O'Callaghan, Lockheed P-38 Lightning pilot, was shot down on February 14, 1945 approximately six miles south of Maribor. According to her information, her son announced over wireless communication that he was going to jump out of the plane, and after that every trace of him was lost. She added: »I was told that this was a very mountainous country and that it was difficult to find a way in such cases. That is why I am writing to you, asking for your help in finding my son.« She goes on and describes her son as being six feet and three inches tall, weighing about 165 pounds, and having brown hair and grey eyes.
Jože Pirc, Head of the Maribor Internal Affairs Department, replied to her letter on May 30, 1946. He explained that a plane was indeed believed to have been shot down on that day about ten kilometres south of Maribor. Apparently, parachutists jumped from the plane and one of them was believed to have been her son. He landed with his parachute near the village of Vurberk and sought refuge with a local man, who was to be his connection with the partisans. Unfortunately, the crash of the plane was also witnessed by members of the Gestapo and Mihajlović's Chetnics. They supposedly traced the pilot down, stripped him naked, shot him and buried him in a ditch by a road. According to the report, the partisans were later to bury the pilot in a Vurberk cemetery, »…with dignity he deserved as an officer of the Allies«. According to their description, the pilot was 190 to 193 cm tall, of strong constitution and brown or red hair. Authorities asked the pilot's mother to send them a photo of her son in a uniform, so that the local farmer could identify him. Melvin Millbright was another pilot believed to have jumped from the same plane, but he was rescued and returned to his homeland. Enclosed to the letter were six photos taken at the place of the execution and burial but, unfortunately, none of them has been preserved.
Žgajnar recounts a slightly different version of the events. The questionnaire that was filled out to enter data into death records (Fragebogen zum Sterbebuch) reveals that the name of the American pilot was found in the death records of the Cirkovce parish under the number 18/45 with the explanation that the airman in question was killed fighting German antiaircraft defence on February 14, 1945 at 3.25 pm. He was buried in the cemetery in Cirkovice, the local gendarmerie station taking care of the burial. Žgajnar's story is partly confirmed by a testimony of the Liberation Front field activist Zvonko Sagadin, who said that he had observed the action from the Ptujska Gora and had seen the airmen jumping out of the burning American plane. He saw that the parachute of one of them got stuck and that he fell to the ground and died. Since the plane was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter, Sagadin believed that it must have held two airmen. He added that the other airman took the route used by couriers to escape to White Carniola.
The ambiguity regarding the identity of the dead pilot still seemed unresolved on December 5, 1946, when the American Graves Registration Service sent a letter, inquiring about the basis on which the identity of Martin O'Callaghan was established. In any case, an investigation that was carried out by the US Department of Defence’s Agency for the Investigation of the Missing and Killed American Soldiers also agreed with the version that Martin F. O'Callaghan was killed on February 14, 1945. As cause of death they stated that the pilot was killed in a fire that followed the plane crash. The list of the planes that crashed in the territory of the People's Republic of Slovenia states that the grave of the American soldier in Cirkovice was exhumed in June 1947, and the grave in Vurberk was exhumed in October 1946. The latter record includes a note, explaining that the grave in Vurberk contained the remains of two pilots who died on May 1944, which disproves the thesis that O'Callaghan was buried in Vurberk. In all likelihood, the remains of O'Callaghan, as of many other American soldiers, were first exhumed from the grave in Cirkovice and placed in a mass grave in Belgrade, and in 1950 they were transferred to the American Cemetery in Impruneta near Florence. Recently, on April 24, 2018, his remains were accounted for and he received his own memorial stone in his hometown of Memphis. One can only imagine what the poor mother of the dead pilot must have felt in the face of such tragedy and especially when faced with the lack of any clear information about the event.