“It wasn’t like it is today,” Tom McTigue recalled. “People were lining up to enlist.”
McTigue, 92, of Wantagh, is a Yorkville, Manhattan, native. The neighborhood that he grew up was full of German immigrants, with German shops, restaurants and bars. Even St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the McTigues’ parish, was predominantly German. But just nine days after he turned 17 in 1944, and with his mother’s consent, McTigue (pronounced mc-TIGE) enlisted in the U.S. Navy in a war against Germany. His older brother, John, was already an active member of the Army Air Corps.
Two months after arriving at boot camp in upstate New York, Tom was pulled aside by his commanding officer. The lieutenant told him that his brother had been shot down and killed while on a bombing mission to a German synthetic fuel plant in Merseburg, near Leipzig, in northeastern Germany. It was 12 days after John’s 22nd birthday.
Tom was given a week to return home to Astoria, Queens, where his widowed mother and two sisters were living. The U.S. Army could not recover John’s remains at the site, and the family was unable to bury their first-born son.
“What are you going to do?” Tom McTigue said. “I was back at boot camp a week later.”
The bombing mission, on Aug. 24, 1944, was part of a campaign coordinated with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Command. American B-17s bombed German infrastructure during the day, while the British carpet-bombed cities at night. The synthetic fuel made at the targeted site in Merseburg was intended for fueling tanks, jets and other military vehicles.
John’s crew departed from Bassingbourn Airfield in England at 6:55 a.m. on Aug. 24. There were three groups of bombers that day — those that would drop their bombs at high, middle and low altitudes. John’s plane was designated as one of the low-altitude bombers. After dropping the bomb load, the plane was hit by German antiaircraft fire.
“It split the plane in half,” Tom McTigue said, after rifling through the lengthy booklet of photocopied official records that the Army has kept on the case for generations. “Some of the crew members were able to pull their parachutes and get out, and some just couldn’t get out.”
John McTigue was among those caught on the side of the plane that was engulfed in flames and spiraled to the ground. The Germans took his remains and kept a record of his death. Eight other planes were shot down in the vicinity of John’s B-17 that day.
Tom served in the Navy for 44 months. He was an apprentice seaman, then a seaman first class, a petty officer first class and a dispersing clerk third class — a payroll man. He even served for seven months on President Harry Truman’s yacht.
After returning home from the service, and for a few years after the war had ended, McTigue was back in his old neighborhood of Yorkville. “I was playing stickball with a few buddies when …” McTigue stammered while fighting back tears. The day was July 25, 1948, when McTigue met Anna Meinberg, a young German woman. By Oct. 1, they were engaged, and they married the following July. Tom and Anna were married for 66 years, until her death in 2015.
All the while, Tom continued to look for an answer to an unsolved question that he could not shake — what happened to his brother’s remains. In 2005, he visited the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Ga. “I got a list of the crew members,” he said who were with his brother when his plane was shot down. The following year, McTigue contacted George DeMott, the plane’s surviving radioman, who was living in Valley Stream. “He said, ‘You shouldn’t have waited so long — I’m dying of cancer,’” McTigue recounted, “but he came over to our house and he told me what happened that day.”
McTigue located the plane’s navigator, 98-year-old John Ketchner, in Baltimore, in 2016. He helped McTigue further piece together the day’s events before his brother’s death.
Later in 2016, McTigue received a letter from Jana Churchwell Scott, whose mission it was to find missing airmen. “She had the whole story about where the plane went down,” McTigue said.
While Scott and her associates worked on the case involving a B-17 crew on a mission in Germany, she reached out to family members of the servicemen whose remains, she believed, had already been found, including McTigue. According to the story she shared with him, McTigue said the caretaker of a cemetery in Lindenthal, near Cologne, Germany, interred the remains of four of the servicemen in caskets. “Of course, the bodies were badly damaged by fire,” he added.
McTigue reached out to the Army to ask officials if they could look further into the case. After the Army deemed it a “good case,” remains were removed from graves in the Loraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-Avold, France, in July 2017. McTigue, along with his nephew Frank Karlsson and niece Theresa Rooney, were sent DNA kits that same year in an attempt to positively match the remains. After family members sent them back to the Army, they were sent on to a lab in Omaha, Neb., in August 2017.
“It was a process,” McTigue admitted. After sending his DNA back to the Army, he was in limbo, waiting and wondering.
Then, last month, he received word that the results had come in after 26 months of testing. They were a positive match. The DNA taken from Tom McTigue, Karlsson and Rooney provided a basis for testing the remains exhumed from the French cemetery. The results not only provided relief, but a sense of closure for the family.
During the Herald’s interview with McTigue at his Wantagh home, the lieutenant assigned to his case called, and walked McTigue through the steps of the arrival of John’s remains at John F. Kennedy International Airport last Friday. The Army provided a private ride for McTigue, Rooney and Karlsson to the airport. On Sunday, McTigue held a service at O’Shea’s Funeral Home in Wantagh. On Monday, a Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at St. Francis de Chantal, before John’s remains were given a proper burial — which Tom had hoped would be possible for 75 years.
McTigue is the last of his era. At 92, he has outlived his brother, two sisters, his wife and parents. He and Anna did not have children, but he is very close with his niece, nephew and godson. He is the chaplain of the Wantagh American Legion, and has lived in the neighborhood since 1965.
“I just wanted to live long enough to positively identify my brother’s remains,” McTigue said, “and I did that.”
Alexandra Dieckmann contributed to this article.