For decades, Tech. Sgt. Hyman L. Stiglitz was little more than a shadowy outline to his descendants. A quiet radio operator who flew aboard B-24s on World War II bombing missions over Europe, Stiglitz and his crew were shot down over Germany in 1944.
They would be listed as missing for more than 60 years.
In his absence, Stiglitz’s relatives scattered across the country from Georgia to Tucson, barely mentioning the U.S. Army Air Corps member to their children.
His family reunited Friday in Tucson to bury Stiglitz with his parents and sister after the military identified his remains earlier this year.
The painstaking work done by military officials to identify Stiglitz’s remains has illuminated an unexplained chapter in his family’s history, creating a great sense of pride among living members, they say.
“The whole thing is amazing to us,” said Ken Stuart, a nephew. “All I had known was that my father had a brother who died in the war. It definitely established some tangibility to the individual.”
Until October, Stiglitz was one of more than 74,000 military personnel listed as missing from WWII. It’s unknown how many of them were from Arizona, as paperwork at the time didn’t include such specifics.
Stiglitz’s crash occurred in an area that later became East Germany, hindering efforts by U.S. officials to find the missing crew. It wasn’t until 2002, when a group of German citizens located the crash site and turned over the remains and other material to the United States that identification work began.
The remains were tested for DNA and cross-matched with living descendants, giving family members their first clues as to what happened to Stiglitz.
In the months since the Defense Department announced it had found the remains of all nine crew members lost in the B-24 crash, the family has learned more about Stiglitz than it had ever known, said Bill Stuart, Ken’s brother.
“All of the sudden, he became a real person to me,” Bill Stuart said.
Stiglitz was born in Lithuania, the oldest son of Anna and Aaron Stiglitz.
He was an accomplished violinist who mostly kept to himself, said Adolph Wright, Stiglitz’s brother in-law, who lives in Tucson.
The family lived in Cuba for nearly a decade while trying to immigrate into the United States.
They eventually settled in Boston in 1933.
After the war, Stiglitz’s sister moved to Tucson and later was joined by her parents.
It’s not clear how, but at some point Stiglitz connected with the Maryland National Guard during the onset of WWII. He was 25 when he was shot down.
He operated radio equipment in planes while pilots patrolled the Atlantic Ocean for enemy submarines. The group of pilots and crew members later became the nucleus of the 492nd Bomb Group, which suffered some of heaviest Air Corps casualties of the war.
The 492nd, which was known as the “Hard Luck” group for suffering 442 casualties in 89 days during WWII, had the reputation of being one of the better-trained bomber units in Europe, said Paul Arnett, who runs a Web site dedicated to preserving the unit’s history.
“They were very experienced and very confident — a cut above the rest,” Arnett said. “The crew had a can-do attitude.”
Despite the training, the group suffered heavy casualties, largely because they were the first unpainted B-24 bombers in Europe, Arnett said.
The silver sides of the planes were “like flying mirrors in the sky,” allowing German fighter planes to zero in on them from miles away, he said.
The crew had several brushes with death before ultimately being shot down by German fighter planes.
One on occasion, the crew faced a dangerous situation when armed bombs failed to drop out of the bomb bay. It was Stiglitz who saved the crew, according to an account in “32 Co Pilots” by Charles R. Bastien.
Balancing on a catwalk above the bomb-bay doors and lacking a tether, Stiglitz feverishly worked to free several bombs from their racks.
Others had fallen to the floor. The bombs had timers that were designed to detonate the bomb right before impact.
With the bombs armed, Stiglitz had only seconds to throw the bombs off the plane before they exploded, according to Bastien’s book.
The stories of heroism are new to Stiglitz’s descendants, and bring them a great sense of pride, Bill Stuart said.
Stiglitz was buried Friday with full military honors.
“More so than closure, it’s in a sense a birth,” Bill Stuart said. “It’s a celebration of our heritage.”