Seventy-five years after he disappeared and was presumed dead, Army 1st Lt. Herschel H. Mattes of Squirrel Hill was finally given a proper military burial in Connecticut, where his 92-year-old sister, Estelle Sherry, resides.
In 1942, Mattes enlisted as a soldier in World War II and was a pilot with the 525th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 86th Fighter-Bomber Group.
“The last time I saw him was after he finished flight school; he had a short leave before he went overseas,” said Sherry.
Mattes was killed on March 6, 1944, when his plane was shot down on a reconnaissance mission near Manziana, Italy, just 25 miles north of Rome. For more than 70 years, neither Sherry nor her family knew what had happened to Mattes.
“I had a lot of hope, and as the years went on and on and nothing was happening and we couldn’t get any information, I frankly said, it will not happen in my lifetime, if it ever happens,” she said.
But in 2014, Vincenzo Lucherini, an Italian physicist living in Manziana, reached out to Sherry’s son, who lives in New Jersey, with the surprising news that Mattes’ remains might have been found.
Lucherini grew up in the town in which the incident occurred, and even though it happened before he was born, he always had an interest in aviation as well as in the events of World War II that played out locally.
Lucherini learned that when the military plane crashed in 1944, the unidentified remains were eventually moved to a cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, where they rested for 70 years accompanied by a plaque that read, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to G-d.”
After visiting the crash site with a metal detector, Lucherini found fragments of what was presumed to be Mattes’ plane; one had the number 97 embedded in it. That clue — along with other corroborating information — enabled him to piece together the probable identity of the fallen soldier. Lucherini worked in conjunction with Stephen Johnson, a historian with the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, who simultaneously researched the case from his office in Washington, D.C.
“He (Lucherini) felt that anybody who helped to liberate his town from German occupation should be back with their families in the U.S.,” said Sherry, of the physicist’s desire to help solve the mystery.
Even after Sherry was notified and gave permission for the exhumation of Mattes’ remains, she had to wait another five years until she received the official confirmation that the unidentified fallen soldier was her brother.
The Mattes family hailed from Squirrel Hill, and Sherry, Mattes and their sister, now deceased, attended Taylor Allderdice High School. Mattes also attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.
“He was six years older; I was the bratty kid sister. He used to tease me all the time, but it didn’t matter because it was a loving tease. He was the kind of guy who looked out for me, and taught me how to ride a bike,” recalled Sherry.
Both Lucherini and Johnson flew to Connecticut to attend the memorial service for Mattes. In a speech, Lucherini detailed the process of identifying Mattes, which hit a number of roadblocks and took several twists and turns through bureaucratic red tape over the years.
Lucherini concluded his speech by saying, “Dear Herschel Howard, We did not know each other. We lived in so different space-time frames that was hard to even think our roads could cross. You gave your life doing your duty, to combat bravely against whom was not just an enemy but an evil. You too now, finally, are here, at home, reunited with your family.”
There are more than 72,000 service members from World War II whose bodies are still unaccounted for. Lucherini was happy that he could provide an answer for at least one family.
For Sherry, last week’s service, a combination military and Jewish funeral, represented closure. “It’s just been an incredible journey, I never thought that this was going to happen after so many years.” pjc
Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.