Finding Loren: Man teams up with Bemidji company, volunteers to find grandfather’s plane and tell his tale
Bemidji Pioneer – By Rachel Newville on Jul 11, 2016.
There was a thick layer of ground haze near Bologna, Italy, the morning of April 21, 1945.
Still, Loren Hintz could see the green, haze covered, fields that resembled his childhood farm home in Iowa. The war in Europe was coming to a close, resulting in more pilots than missions. Many chose to stay back and fly only when needed. However, the 26-year-old Loren was eager to get home. The more missions he completed, the sooner he could return home to his year-old daughter, Gretchen, and wife, Gert, who was eight months pregnant.
Little did Loren know, this one hour “wheels up, wheels down” mission would be his last.
On that hazy morning, Hintz headed out on this 66th mission of World War II. It was a 12-aircraft formation caring incendiary bombs with an objective to strike German ground troops outside of Bologna. Hintz was positioned toward the back of the formation, a “tail-end Charlie.” This meant that by the time Hintz was descending to drop a bomb, the element of surprise was gone. The German troops had started shooting back, and they focused in on Loren’s plane. The P-47 Thunderbolt was hit and caught fire, and in just 10 seconds the plane crashed into the same green fields Loren had admired less than an hour before.
1st Lt. Loren E. Hintz of Charles City, Iowa, had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Hans Wronka of Duluth is on a quest; he is “Finding Loren.”
Wronka, 43, is Hintz’ grandson, and has spent the past 12 years working with his family, Aircorps Aviation of Bemidji and a team of passionate Italian aviators to learn more about his grandfather and where he died.
Through the research, Wronka and his friends have amassed a trove of photographs, documents—official and unofficial—and they’ve conducted countless interviews with witnesses to the crash as well as Loren’s comrades during the war.
And now, Wronka and Aircorps Aviation are using this mass of media to tell Loren’s story to the world. Starting today on www.findingloren.com and social media, they are sharing all they’ve found, using the the hashtag #FindingLoren.
This sharing of Loren’s story also coincides with the excavation of Loren’s plane. On July 23, Wronka and more than 200 volunteers will travel to a site just outside the village of Bagnarola, Italy, where they believe Loren’s plane went down.
The “Finding Loren’ project started on a dark, cold Alaskan night in 2000. Wronka, who was living in Alaska at the time, decided to google the 79th fighter group, of which Hintz was a member.
“In 2000, (the movie) “Private Ryan” had come out. So I would say there was more awareness of the grandkid generation, of what their grandparents had gone through. But, I had been interested in WWII history and aviation for a while,” Wronka said.
Wronka stumbled across a webpage that the 79th fighter group used as a message board for reunions. He decided to type a post: “Does anyone know a Loren E. Hintz? He was in the 79th Fighter Group and 86th Fighter Squadron.”
No response. As far as Wronka was concerned, the post faded into oblivion. But his search continued.
In 2005, Wronka found and purchased the Missing Aircrew Report (MACR) on Loren, which gave him more information on the day his grandfather’s plane went down.
What happened next, Wronka chalks up to destiny.
Working on a project for his new job in Montana, Wronka went out to dinner with a colleague, John Hunt.
“We got to talking about things not related to work, and we just happened to land on the topic of our interest in WWII,” Wronka said.
As the conversation continued Hunt revealed his father-in-law, Bob Johnston, had flown P-47s during World War II in Italy. Wronka then told Hunt about his grandfather. Wronka and Hunt laughed at the coincidence and wondered if there was any possibility Hintz and Johnston knew each other.
They sure did.
Hunt returned home and asked his father-in-law if he knew Loren Hintz. Not only did Johnston know Hintz, but they had trained together stateside and shipped out to Europe together. Both ended up in the 86th Fighter Squadron. They were close friends throughout the war.
“When John Hunt sent me an email a few days later. Honestly, wasn’t so much chills but just the strangest feeling ever, it was like ‘Wow, a connection to the past. Who would have thought?'” Wronka said.
The following Memorial Day, Johnston visited Wronka’s mother and his family at her home in Bloomington, Minn.
“There he was, this 5′ 7″ guy, nicely dressed, wearing a sport coat and a bolo tie and just holding a nice very simple bouquet of flowers in his hands that he offered to my mom,” Wronka said. “That I think was as enchanting as it was fascinating for my mom, because here was actually someone in the flesh telling us much more granular details about what it was like to be a P-47 pilot, and I’m sure my mom was having thoughts like this is sort of what my dad would be like if he would be alive.”
Johnston was 23 in 1945, and also flew 66 missions during the war. Johnston and Hintz were around the same height at 5’7,” both had dark hair and deep dimples. They hung out with a solid group of buddies. Johnston recalled some of their adventures in a video interview with Wronka .
“When we got to Italy, we got a choice of where we could go. We could choose the west, which was closer to peace or the east, on the Adriatic, where more was going on. A small group of us said that we’d have more action over here (on the Adriatic) and we’d get to fly more,” Johnston said. “We all agreed to go there. Thats where the action is going to be.”
Johnston also described Hintz’s laid back personality.
“He was reserved… we never really talked about the enemy, I would say Loren was a gentle man,” Johnston said. “But even as the war was winding down, any chance he had, he was flying missions so he could get home. He was so determined to get home.”
Johnston died in February at age 94.
The first trip to Italy
The next discovery in Loren’s story for Wronka came in spring 2012. Wronka received an email in broken English from an Italian man named Piero Fabbri. The email said that if Wronka was Loren E. Hintz’s grandson, he had some information about the crash for his family.
“Everybody has received these emails from a far off country saying ‘Hey do I have a business deal for you.’ It wasn’t in perfect English and so at first glance my Spidey-senses were tingling that it was a trolling thing,” Wronka said. “But it was like, alright he’s talking specifically about an individual I’m familiar with, my grandpa, and he wasn’t pedaling anything.”
Wronka cautiously replied to Fabbri’s email. They soon became fast friends.
“Piero just has the purest intentions. He had received a list of names of pilots who had crashed in the area during the war and so he just started googling names and found my post from 2000,” Wronka said.
As Fabbri and Wronka continued to communicate, Wronka decided to visit Fabbri in Italy. Wronka, his wife, Reva and oldest son, Gus, boaded their first flight to Italy in July 2012.
Before the Wronka’s arrived, Fabbri had done some ground work trying to find the crash site.
“What he basically did is just quietly worked through the village and asked “Were you around during the war?'” Wronka said. “Theresa was the first one, she had lived in the village her whole life and was a girl during the war. ‘It would be in this field right here, the Malvezzi estate’ she said.”
The Malvezzis are a prominent family in the area. Fabbri used Teresa’s relationship with the Malvezzi family to start a dialog about the project with Marquis Malvezzi.
“As I understand it, it took some time, this was his home and they had experienced terrible things during the war,” Wronka said. “Piero explained to him that there was this American kid looking for his grandpa and then Malvezzi opened up—family is everything in Italy.”
More revelations were made during that first trip.
In the Missing Aircrew Report, Lt. Richard C. Powell had a statement of what happened the morning of April 21, 1945.
“When we peeled off on the target, I selected one of the three houses toward the far end of the area, in order that Lt. Hintz would be able to find a target. I released my fire bombs at approximately 800 to 1,000 feet and encountered light, moderate and accurate flack,” Powell’s statement said.
While at the Malvezzi estate, Wronka and Fabbri came across a photo of a girl sitting on a pile of rubble in front of a dismantled home. Sources in the village told Fabbri that the house had been rebuilt, and it still stands today. That was the house Powell had hit. This was a sign that the team was even closer to finding Hintz’s crash site.
While in Italy, Wronka also was able to fly the path that his grandfather had flown 67 years earlier.
“That was as close to a spiritual connection I’ve had so far…we sort of fell in at the altitude in the statement Powell gave and lined up,” Wronka said. “I knew I was flying over territory that was the last stuff my grandpa saw. I mean it was impossible not to get a lump in my throat and a little teary eyed. I looked over and Piero was the same way. It created a connection with my grandpa that it never occurred to me that I would have any time in my life.”
Connecting the dots
After their trip to Europe, Wronka met Eric Trueblood of Aircorps Aviation in Bemidji at a conference in North Dakota. It just so happened that Aircorps Aviation was going to be restoring a P-47 Thunderbolt, the exact type Loren flew on April 21—there are only 16 flying models left in the world.
“It rounds out a story that I think is impossible to write a Hollywood script on,” Wronka said. “It’s like come on, you can’t make this stuff up. No one is that creative.”
Since 2012, Fabbri and his team have spent thousands of hours in the air and on ground trying to figure out what happened on that hazy morning of April 21, 1945. Their persistence paid off. Fabbri and his team have found the Chiesa brothers, who state they know where the plane crashed and Tonino Zucchelli, who didn’t see the crash but witnessed the bombing of the houses. They were almost certain they knew the site of Loren’s crash.
In spring 2015, Wronka received a grant from the University of Minnesota Duluth, his alma mater, to use an electro magnetometer to test the area where they thought the plane had crashed. When Fabbri and his team conducted the test, they found readings of a large metallic object several meters under the surface.
Fabbri was 80 percent sure that they had found the exact location. The only thing missing was an eyewitness. There had to have been someone who saw the crash. Wronka said there had been references in letters and forms to a “MacFerri” who had seen the plane go down. But after years of searching through various archives and government documents, they still couldn’t find this MacFerri, his family members or the statement itself.
But just this past winter, Wronka finally found the MacFerri statement, which read:
“On April 21, 1945 at approximately 8:30 a fighter airplane was shot down on an estate called Serraglio… the German soldiers were firing machine guns from a dugout and I saw the plane catching fire and then crash into the ground. I couldn’t see any man but I could smell the stench of burnt flesh,” MacFerri’s statement said.
Wronka immediately sent the statement to Fabbri.
Adding the McFerri statement to the rest of the evidence, Fabbri went to his Italian and German archeology friends told them about this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find a World War II plane.
“As I understand it, there’s a lot of these archeologists that go on digs but they hardly ever have this much evidence that there is something there,” Wronka said. “It’s just sort of creating this wave, vortex, drawing people in. The mayor of Budrio will be there and Malvezzi is saying ‘All the parts will be brought back to my estate to be processed.'”
The dig nears
According to Eric Trueblood, co-owner of Aircorps Aviation, the other aspect of this story that draws in so many people is the family’s involvement.
“There are actually people connected to this plane. Loren was an avid writer, wrote lots of letters, he journaled a lot, and he was a poet,” Trueblood said. “The family has preserved all of that and it really brings Loren to life and draws so many people in. He was so full of life.”
One stanza of Loren’s poem ‘Youth!’ demonstrates his love of life.
“Let me live my life while I am able,
And when I change from the spring of youth
To the first frost of age
And then, to the white winter of old age,
Let me be able to say
‘I have lived, and I am not sorry.'”
With the excavation nearing, Wronka is most excited for this unlikely group of 200 people to gather at the crash site.
“If it wasn’t for one guy. It’s not like he was a fighter ace, he was doing his job just like millions of other people were, fighting evil and tyranny. But the fact that one guy who ended up on the unlucky side of the outcome of war, that single life has 71 years later, drawn all these people together from all over the world,” Wronka said.
“I think when that whole group is together, everyone is just going to feel that vibe of his spirit. It’s too bad this happened, but look at this coming together of humanity, after the fact.”
You can follow Loren’s story at www.findingloren.com or use the hashtag #FindingLoren on social media.
On the webpage you will find a video interview with Hans, photos of Loren, government documents, Loren’s poems and journal entries and more. The website will also display parts of the excavation for Loren’s plan in Italy in real time with pictures and video.