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No One Left Behind: WWII Hero Returned to American Soil from Germany After 79 Years

Carl Nesbitt saved the lives of six of his B-17 crew. Now he rests in peace

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Portrait of Carl Nesbitt
Greg Seckman; Getty Images

The sight of a flag-draped coffin bearing the remains of a WWII veteran is a sadly familiar one across America’s heartland as the last of the Greatest Generation leave us.​ ​

But when Carl Nesbitt was buried this year in Annville, Pennsylvania, he was not in his 90s having spent a productive life after returning home. The pilot had perished in Germany aged 23 a week before D-Day in 1944 and it was only now that his remains had been brought home to be laid to rest in American soil.​ ​

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Presiding over his funeral was his nephew, retired pastor Greg Seckman. “Last fall, I was contacted and they said they found the remains of my uncle and that they were going to bring him home with full military honors,” he told AARP Veteran Report.​ ​

“So I told my mom, who is 94, that they found her brother.” His mother cried, she said, remembering how her father had written repeatedly to the Department of Defense after Nesbitt’s plane had crashed, asking, “Have you found my boy?”​ ​

The fact that Carl Nesbitt was found and brought back to the United States is testament to the credo that the American military leaves no one behind.​ ​

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On May 29, 1944, Nesbitt, of the Army Air Forces’ 569th Bombardment Squadron, 390th Bombardment Group, was the pilot of the B-17 Flying Fortress “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” with a crew of 10, bombing enemy targets near Leipzig.​ ​

The plane was hit by enemy fighters and caught fire. By all accounts, Nesbitt saved the lives of six crew members who were able to parachute to safety. 2nd Lt. Robert Patterson, the pilot, Staff Sgt. Weldon Pillow, the radio operator, Staff Sgt. Joe Finch, the tail gunner, Staff Sgt. George Hauskins, the ball turret gunner, and waist gunners Staff Sgt. Lester Miller and Staff Sgt. William Striffler, all ended up as POWs.​ ​

“He was the key to the entire crew,” Jesse Hauskins, son of the ball turret gunner, said of Nesbitt in a television interview this year. “He’s holding that thing upside down with all his might to keep that plane in the air to give his buddies time to get out. And he did it. He did it.” The B-17 crashed near Horst, Brandenburg, Germany, with Nesbitt still at the controls.​ ​

The American Graves Registration Command, which recovered fallen service members in Europe after WWII, found the remains of a seventh crew member in September 1946 buried in a cemetery in Horst. He was Tech. Sgt. Lyle Larson, a turret gunner wounded by a .22 mm. shell whose parachute had failed to open.​ ​

But worsening relations with communist East Germany meant that further searches had to be abandoned and Nesbitt was declared “non-recoverable” on April 21, 1953.​ ​

The fall of the Berlin Wall changed the geopolitical situation but it wasn’t until July 2012, investigators recovered evidence of a B-17 at the crash site. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) excavated the site in the summer of 2019, recovering three sets of human remains that were sent to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for analysis.​ ​

Shortly afterward, Justin LeHew, of the nonprofit History Flight, which helps recover missing remains and had worked on the site with DPAA, contacted Seckman looking for direct relatives of Nesbitt. Poignantly, LeHew hails from Nesbitt’s home town of Lima, Ohio.​

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​Seckman’s mother provided a DNA sample, which proved a match for Nesbitt. Relatives of 1st Lt. Melvin Meyer, the B-17’s bombardier, and 2nd. Lt Wayne Dyer, the navigator, were also located, meaning the remains of all three missing airman could be identified.​ ​

“It was not an accident that they found his remains,” said Seckman. “I know what an archeological dig looks like. It’s a very laborious, tedious process. You’re not using bulldozers. You’re using toothbrushes and brooms.” In addition to the remains, Nesbitt’s dog tags, and, remarkably, a bicycle license were discovered.​ ​

Seckman said that the Nesbitt family never lost hope that the American pilot, who was on his 35th missions and was due to be sent home, would be found.​ ​

History Flight has recovered 390 sets of remains, 160 of which have been identified and returned to their families. There are over 72,000 WWII servicemembers still missing.​ ​

More than 100 mourners were at Nesbitt’s funeral at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, most of them honoring a man they had never known. Around 20 veterans on Harley Davidson motorcycles were there, adding some background noise to the already “pretty impressive” occasion.​ ​

Seckman remembers a portrait of Nesbitt hanging over his grandfather’s mantle for the duration of his childhood, a visible reminder of the unresolved pain of his absence. Now, that painting hangs in Seckman’s office.​ ​

Jesse Hauskins, who would never have been born had it not been for Nesbitt’s actions on May 29, 1944, said that his father, who was the last of the six survivors to pass away, always remembered the sacrifice of Nesbit, Larson, Meyer and Dyer that day. He said: “They were truly remarkable young men.”

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