There’s new hope for Bob Mitchell of Fort Smith that he can finally find out what happened to his big brother in World War II.
A staffer with U.S. Sen. John Boozman’s office contacted Mitchell recently with news there is a new landowner in Austria where 23-year-old 2nd Lt. Henry Don Mitchell’s P-38 crashed on July 8, 1944, as part of a mission with the 48th Fighter Squadron, 14th Fighter Group.
The previous landowner had not allowed a team from the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to conduct an excavation to search for the pilot’s remains after an Austrian researcher, Markus Reisner, located the crash site about five years ago.
The pilot from Harmon, who had been a flight instructor at Starnes Flying Service in Conway just before the war, is still listed as "MIA." He is one of nearly 73,000 World War II servicemen listed as missing in action by the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The younger Mitchell, now on the cusp of his 90th birthday, has always thought his brother would have tried to eject from the plane if it was going down. He knows, however, P-38 pilots were often killed in the ejection process because of a wing between the two engine housings of the P-38 Lighting.
"I will be glad to know what happened," Bob Mitchell said from his home on North Sixth Street. "I know my brother, and I think he would have tried to bail out. If we are able to dig there we’ll know."
Mitchell said he was told previously by the agency, after they conducted a site inspection, there was unexploded ordnance from the P-38 at the site. This left suspicion that the plane crashed without an explosion. The reason from the previous landowner for not allowing the agency to conduct a minor excavation of the crash site was that it was a hunting lease and he did not want to disturb the animals, Mitchell said.
Sara Lasure at Boozman’s office noted this week the senator’s staff has maintained an open dialogue with the office of the Austrian Ambassador to the United States about the status of potential recovery efforts. Boozman was made aware of the change in land ownership during this regular outreach, she explained.
"An on-site inspection is scheduled to take place at the end of the month," Lasure added. "This is a good first step intended to discuss the process moving forward that will hopefully lead to potential excavation and investigation of the possible crash site."
A 2017 article on Mitchell’s efforts to reclaim the remains of his brother notes his efforts began in 1997 when he contacted then-U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson’s 3rd District office in Fort Smith. He was put in touch with the Austrian researcher, Reisner. In 2015, using information from the U.S. military via Mitchell, and interviews with locals who recalled the crash, Reisner and his group found Henry Mitchell’s P-38. According to Cherri Lawless at the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center in Fort Knox, Ky., the plane’s identity was confirmed by serial numbers from the P-38 aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
The crash is thought to have occurred shortly before noon after Mitchell and his squadron conducted a "flight sweep" to Vienna. His last known words were "Green Two, O.K."
Mitchell said his brother had been stationed in Italy. Dental records and DNA samples were sent to Dover Air Force Base several years ago for confirmation if remains are found at the P-38 crash site. Mitchell said if his brother’s remains are ever found they will be placed in the U.S. National Cemetery at Fayetteville. There is already an MIA marker for him there.
At last count in September, the remains of 961 Arkansans who fought in foreign wars remain missing: 846 from World War II; 99 from the Korean War; 15 from the Vietnam War; and one from the Cold War era. The agency holds the POW/MIA Remembrance Day the third Friday of each September.
In all, there are about 82,000 Americans who fought in wars who are still missing. The agency’s mission is to bring the remains of all of them home. However, an estimated 41,000 have been presumed lost at sea.
One of the latest to be accounted for was Isaac Ezekial Parker, a 17-year-old sailor from Pulaski County who was aboard the USS Oklahoma when it was bombed and capsized in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Parker’s remains were identified by the agency on Sept. 15. Parker, a young Black man from the Woodson Community in Pulaski County, was one of four sailors on the USS Oklahoma to have been accounted for by the agency in August and September.