By KRISTIN M. HALL
CLARKSVILLE (AP) — A Fort Campbell soldier has turned his lifelong passion for finding military artifacts into a mission to discover what happened to a young World War II pilot missing since 1945.
What started as a hobby for Sgt. 1st Class Danny Keay followed him throughout his career in the U.S. Army, where he currently serves at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, a unit that dates to World War II.
Keay was born in the United Kingdom but grew up in Germany, where he would take his father’s metal detector out into the German countryside, track down plane crash sites and dig out buried debris and plane parts that had been untouched for decades.
“The plane crash sites have always held an interest for me, because I have always been into plastic models,” he said. “My dad was in the Royal Air Force for 22 years. If it had wings, I could identify it.”
He met his wife, an American service member, while she was stationed in Germany and they moved to the United States, where he joined the Army in 1992. The Army sent him back to Germany in 2002, where he reignited his interest in finding not only the planes, but the young men lost with them.
To date, there are more than 70,000 U.S. service members still considered missing in action from World War II.
“This is somebody’s son. This is somebody’s father, somebody’s brother. You become more interested in the people than the airplanes,” he said.
In 2004, he was contacted by a German researcher who said he knew the location of a downed P-47D Thunderbolt plane that was due to be covered up by a road in West Germany. An American fighter bomber pilot, 22-year-old 1st Lt. Paul Mazal of Loomis, Calif., was believed to have been shot down in the area in March 1945.
Keay said many sites of WWII wreckage are found by private groups that do their own research and present their evidence to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which then confirms the identities. Often DNA evidence gathered from family members is used to make the ID.
In 2005, Keay and his team dug out the Thunderbolt plane wreckage and found the Mazal’s remains. Keay, who had found the remains of other Allied troops before this dig, said he was amazed to find the pilot’s remains remarkably intact.
“He was still in a sitting position,” Keay said. “We had to unbuckle his parachute and his jacket to look for his dog tags.”
The remains were turned over to JPAC, which returned them to Mazal’s living family members, who include a cousin and a brother.
But Keay’s digging didn’t stop there. He wanted to know more about this young fighter pilot and what his last days were like fighting on the front lines of the European theater.
The pilot’s cousin found a letter from Mazal that said in the final days of his life he had been staying with a Belgian family near the airfield where he was based. So Keay tracked down the family in Belgium, went to the house where Mazal had lived and met family members who gave him information about the pilot’s life.
“I have learned so much about him, it’s like I can empathize and know him,” he said.
Keay also went to Tucson, Ariz., to speak with veterans from Mazal’s unit, the 406th Fighter Group, and gave them a portrait of the fighter for their museum.
“This is still living history. It is history I can touch and I can talk to people who can still remember it,” he said.
Keay is compiling his research into the crash and the life of Mazal into a book titled “Roscoe Red Three Is Missing,” which is to be published this summer.
Keay has helped recover the remains of eight service members, including Mazal, but many family members are still searching for their loved ones decades later.
Adrian Caldwell was just 20 months old when her father, Staff Sgt. Leroy Liest, went missing in a plane crash in 1944 over the Dutch coast. Bodies of four of the crewmembers washed ashore, but six others, including her father, were never found.
Caldwell, who lives in Tupelo, Miss., said she started about 11 years ago in a quest to find the plane with the help of a network of WWII researchers and historians, including Keay. She said after many delays, JPAC has agreed to search the waters where the plane could be buried and she remains hopeful her father will get a proper burial.
“The journey has been wonderful and I have made fabulous friends, but my dream to find my dad and the other crewmembers has been very frustrating and I have tried not to give up,” she said. “A lot of the family members have since died, wishing they had closure.”
Keay carries around a darkened, aged copy of a photo of Mazal in his wallet, showing the freckle-faced pilot just a couple of months before his death.
“People say to me, ‘Why do you carry that?’ and I say, ‘Because it reminds me,”’ he said. “It reminds me of why I am doing my hobby.”
Published in The Messenger 5.28.12