It’s impossible to know what Lt. William McGowan was thinking in the final seconds of his life, on June 6, 1944. The 23-year-old fighter pilot from Benson, Minn., was on a D-Day bombing run a few miles inland from Omaha Beach when his P-47 Thunderbolt was hit by German anti-aircraft fire.
Several witnesses in the nearby village of Moon-sur-Elle believe that McGowan’s last moments were occupied with concern for their lives. It looked as if the pilot downed his burning plane in a farmer’s field just outside town to avoid civilian casualties, they later told the McGowan family.
The aircraft burned for more than a day, and the farmer later found McGowan’s dog tags. A few years after World War II ended, the Defense Department removed wreckage from the site, but didn’t recover any remains. McGowan’s name was etched into the Wall of the Missing at France’s Normandy American Cemetery, alongside about 1,500 other service members whose deaths had not been confirmed.
But after nearly 75 years of uncertainty, a second excavation of the crash site two years ago yielded human remains containing DNA that matched McGowan’s relatives. Last May, the U.S. military officially declared the young pilot killed in action had been accounted for.
McGowan’s parents, widow (who had remarried after the war) and two sisters were no longer alive to hear the news. But the next generation made plans for a full military burial to honor the war hero they never met.
Before he entered the service, William “Bill” McGowan had been on a similar career path as his father, Joseph, the publisher of Benson’s Swift County Monitor-News. After graduating from the University of Missouri’s journalism school, he worked in Madison, Wis., for a few months before returning to Minnesota to edit his father’s newspaper.
In February 1943, McGowan reported to the U.S. Army Air Forces for training. A year later, at the chapel of the Louisiana airfield where he was stationed, the young pilot married his Winona-bred girlfriend, Suzanne Schaefer. That April, he headed to England.
Shortly after the D-Day attack, McGowan’s family was alerted that he was missing in action. A year later, after the military notified the family that McGowan likely had perished, the Monitor-News ran a story that announced: “Benson Fighter Pilot Downed by Ack Ack on D-Day Now Presumed Dead.”
Several years after the war, McGowan’s parents and his two younger sisters traveled to the crash site, where they found the plane’s propeller still embedded in the field. They met Moon-sur-Elle villagers and saw that the community had added a tribute to aviator McGowan — “hommage a l’aviateur” — on an obelisk honoring those from the town who had died in the war.
Despite the circumstantial evidence of McGowan’s death, the uncertainty nagged on his sister Patricia, said her daughter Nora Slawik of Maplewood. “He was always in the back of her mind, wanting to find him, wanting to confirm that it was him,” she said.
The next generation
McGowan’s nephew Paul Stouffer of Bozeman, Mont., has taken on the role of family historian, as well as taken to heart the final wishes of his mother, Mary Jo, to make sure her brother’s story lives on.
Stouffer expressed how appreciative he has been of the connections his family forged with the people of Normandy and for everything the community has done to recognize his uncle. In 2011, Stouffer visited Moon-sur-Elle when the town dedicated a memorial for McGowan in a park near the crash site. French and American flags were flown, and both country’s national anthems played.
“Pretty much the entire village was there,” Stouffer recalled.
Stouffer met an elderly woman who had witnessed the crash as a child. Another villager presented Stouffer with pieces of the plane that he had collected, along with a handwritten note that read: “We will never forget that the Americans came to liberate us.”
A few years later, one of Stouffer’s French connections let him know that the land on which the crash site was situated had been sold for development, increasing the urgency to search for McGowan’s remains. In 2018, the U.S. military partnered with forensic archaeology students from Nova Scotia to excavate the site in Normandy. The team found human remains and a metal pin matching one that McGowan wore on his uniform’s lapel. About a year later, McGowan’s relatives learned of the DNA match.
At the end of World War II, about 79,000 Americans who served were unaccounted for; since then, only a few thousand have had their remains recovered and identified. Though discoveries still happen — a 24-year-old Marine from Eveleth, Minn., who died fighting in Micronesia was accounted for this month — most families of missing soldiers still wait for closure.
“These stories will become more and more rare as time goes forward,” said Dean Simmons, a World War II historian and instructor at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, who recently conducted extensive research on the school’s alumni veterans, including McGowan.
Simmons noted that breakthroughs on war stories such as McGowan’s tend to come and go in waves, fueled both by technological advances and generational transitions. While the parents and widows of deceased veterans might have stowed away their loved one’s personal effects, members of the subsequent generation often reopen the boxes and look at their contents with fresh eyes and new tools for connecting with the history.
“Now that some of the children of World War II veterans are nearing retirement, they’re finding time to do research,” he noted. “The boxes of things that are being passed down are undergoing another turnover.” he said.
A full military burial
After McGowan’s remains were identified, his descendants decided to have them buried in the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
Nearly 50 Americans had planned to attend the ceremony, initially scheduled for this July on what would have been McGowan’s 100th birthday. The group includes nearly all of McGowan’s eight nieces and nephews, along with many of their children, as well as a few folks from Benson with a family connection, including the mayor and the newspaper publisher.
Concerns about COVID-19 postponed the event to July 2021, but the plans are the same: McGowan’s remains will be interred, a rosette will be added beside his name on the Wall of the Missing to indicate that he’s been found and the Purple Heart he earned so many years ago finally will be presented to his family.
“It’s really a celebration of an amazing but short life,” Stouffer said.
The family looks forward to honoring McGowan alongside a French community grateful for his sacrifice, and helping to ensure that all the soldiers who died on D-Day will not be forgotten.
“It took 75 years to find Uncle Bill’s remains and we feel extremely fortunate,” Slawik said. “But we’re also thinking about all those who haven’t been found and knowing there’s still hope.”