It was a wintry Chicago night when Loretta Kreft's landlady telephoned the defense plant where she worked and asked her to come home. A telegram had arrived from the War Department -- and during World War II, that could only mean bad news. When Kreft arrived at her boardinghouse, the woman dug her hand in an apron pocket and pulled out the yellow envelope.
The telegram was terse. Earlier that day -- Jan. 30, 1945 -- her husband, Technical Sgt. Harvey Cook, and three other airmen died when their B-24L Liberator crashed and burned in the Mojave Desert, not far from the Army airfield in Victorville, California, where they were stationed.
A second telegram arrived a few days later, filled with misspellings and confusing text. It was as callous as the first: "Remains of your husband T Sgt. Harry L. Cook have been prepared and placed in casket and are being shipped . . . . The government will pay to the person who will incure interment expenses a sum not in excess of fifty dollars."
Nearly six decades later, last September, Kreft -- now 80 and widowed for a second time -- heard from David Schurhammer, an amateur aviation archeologist from Orange County, California. Schurhammer had found one of Cook's dog tags and a birthstone ring Kreft had given him as a wedding gift. The ring and the tag had lain in the desert for six decades, ignored or overlooked by the soldiers who had retrieved the bodies and hauled away the wreckage in 1945.
The discovery left Kreft torn. She had long ago started a new life, having remarried and raised two children. But all the same, after a few days she called the number on Schurhammer's letter, which had been forwarded by Veterans Affairs. And in hearing his account, she found herself reliving powerful memories of a romance that blossomed in the dark days of World War II, when love was just about the only hope young people had.
For Schurhammer, returning Cook's possessions provided a rare moment of triumph that helped make up for all the long hours he has spent pursuing his weekend hobby: searching for old airplane crash sites. "I had found a simple ring that symbolized their love and was lost for 60 years, and I was returning it to her," said Schurhammer. "Wow!"
The hunt for old crash sites is part obsession and part charity to Schurhammer and fellow "wreck finder" Gary Pat Macha. Like several dozen other wreck sleuths across the country, they are driven by the detective-like work of pinpointing a crash site. Because most of the crashes occurred long before the global positioning system could be used to locate a site, finding wrecks can be an Indiana Jones-like experience. The two scour military records that typically offer only the barest of facts about the accident and do not include map coordinates -- only general information. For example, the crash site is 15 miles north or south of a known location and 10 miles east or west of another geographical landmark. Sometimes an old newspaper article will fill in the details.
Aviation archeologists locate a site by using the scant information from crash reports, newspaper articles and old photographs, which can show ridge lines or other topographical features. But it also takes persistence and luck.
Mostly, the two men explore military crash sites that have gone untouched for decades -- like the shallow crater just off U.S. Highway 395 where Cook's plane went down. Sometimes the crash sites have been scrubbed clean by the elements, or picked over by scavengers. But on occasion, there are mementos to be found and returned to family members.
The two wreck finders leave a crash site undisturbed, except for the personal items they recover and attempt to return to the victims' survivors. If they find human remains -- usually no more than fragments of bone -- the two men bury them and erect a makeshift memorial. Following a code of conduct common among professional archeologists, the wreck hunters refuse to disclose the exact locations of crash sites, fearing that souvenir hunters will ravage what little is left.
Schurhammer, 41, and Macha, 57, catalog their finds on Macha's website: www.aircraftwrecks.com. The pages are filled with photos of old wrecks accompanied by crash stories culled from military reports and old newspaper stories. In most cases, the military ignores their sleuthing, having surrendered its interest in a crash site after completing an investigation.
Macha, a retired high school geography and history teacher, lives in Huntington Beach and has no aviation training. Neither does Schurhammer, a construction worker from Fullerton who reads military airplane crash reports in his spare time. But they share a passion for aircraft wrecks, especially military planes from World War II.
The two men have discovered that some family members want to visit wreck sites, but others do not. In September, for example, the son and daughter of civilian test pilot Jack Collingsworth asked Macha to take them to where their father died on Oct. 20, 1953, while flying a YF-89 from Edwards Air Force Base. Collingsworth was doing a victory roll when a mechanical failure caused the plane to crash.
The daughter of a couple who died when their plane crashed in the San Gabriel Mountains in May 1960 also called him. But she wanted assurance that nothing remained at the site. Her father was piloting a surplus T-6 Texan trainer that crashed in bad weather. "Visiting the site was too painful for her," said Macha. "She took solace from knowing that the wreckage had been completely cleaned up and there was nothing left to tell somebody that something tragic had occurred there."
On some occasions, Schurhammer and Macha can bring a closure that widows and siblings feel they were denied by the military's blunt, detached style of delivering bad news. That was the case with Loretta Kreft.
"I've been curious all these years about why the plane crashed," she said. "Nobody told me anything back then. Everything was cold and clinical. Their attitude was, 'Don't ask any questions, young lady. That's just the way it is.' "
At the time of Cook's death, they had been married just seven months. Because of the war, they had spent only about six weeks together as husband and wife. "We made a lot of plans together, but everything went by the wayside," said Kreft, who still wears a watch Cook bought for her at an Army post exchange.
Cook's death and the Army's lack of candor about the crash left a lasting sting, turning Kreft into a critic of war and the military. "To this day, I have a very deep anger. Nobody would tell me anything about how he died. If you're one who supported the Vietnam War, the '91 (Gulf) war or the war with Iraq, I'm not the one to talk to. I wasn't about to raise any cannon fodder. During Vietnam, I promised to take my son to Canada if he ever got drafted," said Kreft.
It took Macha and Schurhammer several weeks and five trips to the desert before they found the spot where Cook's B-24L went down, which they learned about from a yellowed 1945 newspaper article. As an icy wind blew across the Mojave Desert and storm clouds brooded overhead, Macha and Schurhammer poked through the wreckage on a recent return visit to the crash site. Pieces of plexiglass, vacuum tubes from the plane's avionics, odd-shaped clumps of melted aluminum, an L-shaped olive drab military flashlight and other debris littered a piece of desert that is still scorched from the crash.
Cook was the flight engineer the day the plane went down. Norbert J. Vehr was the co-pilot. The pilot was James G. Wright. Three other airmen -- Carl F. Hansen, John R. Palin and Herbert A. Perry -- were also aboard the Liberator. Only Hansen and Palin survived.
During their first visit to the wreck, Schurhammer and Macha laid out a crucifix memorial made from rusty lubricant cans that had been carried in the airplane.
Schurhammer said Kreft's gratitude renews his passion to track down other World War II wrecks that have gone untouched for so many years. "I'm just the guy who finds the personal effects, finds out who they belonged to and returns them to the families," said Schurhammer. "There's dozens of crash sites to investigate in the mountains and deserts of Southern California. The personal effects of pilots or crew members are scattered about at some of them. Somewhere in the U.S., there's a family member who would like to have them returned."