After 66 Years, MIA Pilot’s Wife Discovers What Happened to Her Husband!

Husband and Wife
The last photo of Geri and Fred; taken the day he and his crew departed for England in October 1943. Geri told me, “This is what happiness looks like!”

We never found her although we’ve searched. She found us instead.

Beyond all belief, the former wife of Lt. Fred Delbern, pilot of the Lonesome Polecat II found us in March 2009, 68 years after he vanished during the mission to Bremen, Germany. We received a call from Dane Hanson, her nephew, informing us that she was indeed alive, and she wanted to talk to us.

I called her immediately and found out that the former Mrs. Delbern had remarried and was now Geraldine Marshall. She had a good, long sixty-one-year second marriage to Joe Marshall before he died in 2008. Geri told me that it was her nephew Charlie Hanson who found me. One day, Charlie decided to google “the Lonesome Polecat” and the cover of my book Fateful Flight of the Lonesome Polecat II immediately popped up. Geri was shocked when she saw the photo of Fred’s crew on the cover that she could hardly speak. She immediately ordered the book and read it over and over. She was glad to know the details about her beloved first husband’s fateful mission.

After talking to Geri by telephone, I traveled to Duluth, Minnesota, and met her. We shared tears, and I showed her all the photographs of Texel and the details of what we knew about the crew and Fred’s final mission. During my meetings with Geri, who is now ninety-six years young, she says that her forever-handsome young lieutenant is in her thoughts every day as she wakes up and looks at his photo on her dresser.

They were married on May 2, 1942, and they managed to spend a few months together before he joined the US Army Air Corps. Geri talks about Fred as a very happy and outgoing young man who was a top-notch athlete. Football was his main love, and Fred was very good at it as shown by his football scholarship to the University of Minnesota.

The other thing that Fred loved was flying. He learned to fly a single-seat aircraft and had received his pilot’s license before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Geri relates, “I wanted him to wait and be drafted like everybody else. But he was crazy about flying, and he enlisted. When I found out, I didn’t like it very well.” Fred was sent to several bases in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida before finally ending up in Spokane, Washington, where his crew was formed.

Geri stayed in a Spokane hotel with the other wives while Fred and his crew trained intensively and endlessly to get ready for combat. Geri said that she met Fred’s crew a few times. She said my brother Eugene was a very kind and dedicated man.

Geri last saw Fred in the hotel in Spokane. Fred took Geri to a store and bought her a new dress, and then they had the above photo taken the same day. Geri kissed Fred good-bye with a heavy heart, and he told her, “Auf wiedersehen (good-bye, till we meet again)” and she watched him turn and walk slowly down the hotel stairs, never imagining that was the last time she would see the love of her life. He and his crew then flew off to Nebraska to be outfitted before departing for war in Europe in early November 1943.

Geri returned home to Duluth and wrote to Fred every day. When Thanksgiving and then Christmas 1943 came and went without a word from Fred, her anxiety grew. On New Year’s Eve, Geri lay down on the sofa and put a record on the phonograph and lay back. Suddenly, “I saw Fred. He was right next to me. He put his arm over mine, and touched my right arm. He had a big smile on his face. It was so real. I was sure I was not sleeping.” A little while later, there was a knock on the door, and it was a Western Union telegram stating that Fred was missing in action since December 16.

When the war finally ended in Europe in May 1945 and all the POWs were returned home, there was still no sign of Fred. There was no additional information about him even though she had written numerous letters asking for more information. Geri and her mother visited crew member Doral Hupp in Ohio, seeking information. Doral tried to console her, telling Geri everything he knew about what happened to Fred. Next, she wrote to Charlie Schreiner in Burbank, California, pleading with him to tell her everything he knew about what happened to Fred. Charlie sat down and typed out a very detailed eight-page letter to Geri describing in detail what occurred on the mission. At the end, Charlie described that as he came down in his parachute, he watched the severely damaged B-17 fly towards England, leaving a trail of smoke, with Fred and copilot Don Neff in the cockpit, and he wondered what the pilots would do.

In fact, it wasn’t until February 2009 when she discovered the book Fateful Flight of the Lonesome Polecat II had she learned the details of what happened to Fred. She read how Fred bravely piloted the severely damaged B-17F despite the tragic death of his copilot, and being hit in the arm.

Author Rob Morris talked with Geri recently and had this to say, “Each morning, as Geri goes about her daily routine in her apartment in Duluth, she sees the smiling, handsome face of her husband Fred Delbern, and she feels a mixture of great sadness and peace. For he isn’t really gone. He’s inside her heart, and has been there for seventy years.”

 

Michael Darter is an Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an international authority in design, construction, rehabilitation, and management of highway and airfield infrastructure. He has spent the past 15 years in a dedicated cold case investigation trying to find out what happened to his only brother.  Please see www.gonewiththewindhe said.com for details and a short video.

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