Daily Breeze: Finding tales behind “We regret to inform you”
By John Bogert, Staff Columnist | Posted: 10/23/09, 9:00 PM PDT | See DailyBreeze original article
At first it might seem a curious occupation. Call it an embracing of the dead. Or, maybe more accurately, a bringing back to life.
William Beigel of Torrance runs an index finger down the top page of a thick sheaf of paper covered in names of the long-dead, hundreds of them, all disappeared from this Earth with a terse War Department, “We regret to inform you … .”
“But they didn’t disappear, not really,” said the railroad equipment contract specialist. “They’re right here and every one of those names brings a tear to my eye because I now know them.”
And it all began with a World War II picture book he owned as a child growing up here in the South Bay. Specifically, with a photo of a stricken B-17 bomber spinning toward Earth and a question that he’d repeat hundreds of times in a long journey from curious boy to a man who spends nearly all his free time searching out final mysteries.
“I kept going back to that plane falling toward Berlin,” said the 51-year-old father of two. “I knew that there were men in that plane and that they were about to die and I just wanted to know who they were.”
This propensity to wonder was bolstered in the future UCLA history major by his father, a man who spoke often of a cousin who vanished without a trace on June 3, 1943, when a bomber he was flying in disappeared somewhere between Gander Lake, Newfoundland, and Prestwick, Scotland.
There was so much of that in WWII. In fact, the cousin, Sgt. Morris Meyers, was just one of 30,000 U.S. airmen who died without ever seeing a war zone. Not that being killed in training or killed by a moving truck, an accidentally fired bullet or a fall from a hotel window made much difference when it came to overwhelmed military authorities.
Back in 1999, Beigel went looking for his father’s lost cousin and found instead an undiscovered country, a dark place of second-hand information passed along like an endless game of rumor until it bore no resemblance to the facts – facts that he would begin uncovering for people whose curiosity was undiminished by time.
Sorrow, it seems, has no expiration date.
His first rudimentary search on the then just-developing Internet opened a path to a military file on the crash that killed that long-missing cousin, a file crammed with letters from the father of that Scotland-bound plane’s co-pilot. The father, a prominent attorney, wanted hard information that would get no harder than this: June weather over that portion of the North Atlantic can be extremely treacherous.
That and how the Army sent a check to the family of Sgt. Morris Meyers for 53 cents, the amount of money found in his emptied locker.
Given Beigel’s natural leanings, it seemed like predestination, like it was somehow meant that this first search would put him in touch with survivors of the 388th Bomber Group and a legion of people who wanted to finally know the truth of how death found their loved ones.
Over time, as his search methods sharpened, Beigel became expert in military protocol. He learned about the dreaded “missing in action” telegram that was so often – in a time of unimaginable carnage – followed by a second one bearing the terrible generality, “killed in action.”
“But there was almost never a how or where, which led to tons of back-and-forth letters between the War Department and families. All of these ended up in what’s called a 293 File, which often did contain details,” he said, noting that the tragic yet mostly unremarkable information almost never made it to the families, not when officials feared panic among a populace facing mass combat deaths.
Sometimes families received official letters explaining that a son had died “instantly and without pain” – and without any verification – and yet more letters from comrades of the fallen who were trying to soften the loss by covering the truth.
“So many of the people I hear from tell stories of sudden death by sniper fire or while on a secret mission when the truth is that most of the war’s casualties came from artillery and mortar fire,” he said.
Beigel soon assembled an arsenal of research tools that he used to help truth-seekers who, to his astonishment, began calling in ever-increasing numbers. So many that he started a business called Personalized WW2 Historical Research (www.ww2usakilledmissingpow.com).
He charges for his time-consuming services and hard-won knowledge, usually well under $200. But there have been cases where families still hurting from long-ago deaths have paid him for lengthy, painstaking research projects in national military archives.
Not long ago, a Brownsville, Texas, Rotary Club asked him to give life to the names engraved on the city’s long-neglected war memorial.
“The reactions, even after 65 years, is usually that of gratitude and relief no matter what I find. People often maintain a kind of psychic connection with the dead that they want to lay to rest. They just need to know the truth,” he said.
He has also heard the anguished combat stories of old soldiers – one even gifted him his combat medals – and learned of long-forgotten tragedies like the one involving the Zwick brothers of Montrose who died weeks apart in 1943 in flying accidents at what is now Torrance Airport.
The work never stops. A photo he spotted on the wall of a home during a party for his daughter’s soccer team led him to the combat death in March 1945 of James Anastassiou, the son of a heartbroken Greek Orthodox minister (all of it contained in a forgotten 293 File) who only wanted the return of his young son’s body for proper burial.
“Each time I do this I feel as though I am bringing these men back to life, back to tell their real stories,” Beigel said. “People ask me how long I’ll do this. To honor the sacrifice, I will do this forever.”
We at Team Beigel want to express our deep sympathy at the untimely passing of John Bogert on July 30, 2012