Daughter's work returns WWII remains from Europe

At Arlington National Cemetery last week, Sharon Taylor of Olympia buried the father she had no memory of.

The funeral ended a years-long search by Taylor, 61, associate professor at Saint Martin's University, to learn the fate of 1st Lt. Shannon E. Estill of the Army Air Forces during World War II.

Taylor was 3 weeks old when German anti-aircraft fire brought down Estill's P-38J Lightning fighter plane over eastern Germany on April 13, 1945 - less than a month before the Allied victory over the Axis in Europe. He was 22.

Another U.S. pilot nearby saw Estill's plane explode and crash in the field below.

U.S. military personnel couldn't recover his remains because the site was under the control of the Russians after the war. His name was added to those of the many thousands missing somewhere in that ravaged land.

German farmers continued to plow the field, turning the aircraft parts and remains into the dirt.

At home, his young widow, Mary, was stricken with grief and despair that would remain until she uttered her last words at age 59: "Hi, honey, I've been waiting ..."

His daughter's love endured, withstanding both time and distance. She would be the one to find him. She would bring him home.

"I felt like I carried that responsibility with me for all the people who never knew what happened to him," she said.

Her mission became ever more clear when she transcribed the hundreds of letters exchanged by her parents between 1939 and 1945. The work took the bulk of one summer in the early 1990s and produced 3,000 typewritten pages. Her intent was to preserve the words of love and family legacy.

But those words also held clues to her father's past. The names she found in the letters included her father's crew chief, whom she located easily. That contact opened the door to the surviving members of her father's squadron, and soon to a German aircraft researcher, Hans Guenther Ploes, who hunts World War II planes that were shot down in his country. They became allies.

"It just began to happen," she said.

Momentum builds

In 2001, she made her first trip to Germany, met Ploes and began tracing the last months and days of her father's life.

She made several more trips to Germany to locate where he had died. After she returned to the United States, the search continued without her and grew to include several members. Ploes never asked for payment, although Taylor would pay for his hotel rooms and his meals when visiting Germany.

On one occasion, Taylor asked Ploes why he was helping her. "Because you asked," was his reply.

In March 2003, when another war in another part of the world was about to commence, Taylor arrived in Germany to find Ploes with a huge grin on his face.

"He was so excited," she recalled.

But he wouldn't tell her the reason for his excitement. It would have to wait until dinner.

He arrived with a strange bundle tucked under his arm. Wrapped under plastic was an airplane part Taylor didn't recognize with a tiny series of numbers on it.

The number on the part matched the number written on a missing air crew report written by Estill's squadron leader.

After a long process of elimination, the search team had found the crash site. They found the part and what a team member believed was a human bone fragment.

Upon hearing the news at dinner, Taylor burst into tears.

Lost and found

With hard evidence in hand, Taylor turned to the U.S. government to excavate the site, and recover and identify the remains.

She was able to join and work with a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command during its second visit to the crash site during a three-week period in August and September 2005. The team recovered additional human remains and wreckage from the P-38J.

"I shoveled," she said. "I dug in the dirt when I could."

JPAC cannot prohibit family members from joining the team, but family members are made aware of the risks, including unexploded ordnance and poisonous vermin. And, if they are injured, that could delay recovery of remains, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.

"It's pretty rare," he said about family members as team members. "However, she had some connections, some acquaintance with the German nationals who were doing the original investigations over there."

Using DNA testing, JPAC confirmed the remains were of Estill and presented them to Taylor at her Phoenix home in April. She was dividing her time living in Phoenix and a houseboat moored in Budd Inlet.

On Tuesday, the remains buried in foreign soil for decades were placed in hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.

Some of the surviving members of Estill's squadron attended. Sitting next to Taylor was Estill's 82-year-old brother, Wesley, who clutched a picture of his long-lost older brother to his chest. An Army chaplain presented the folded American flag to her, a symbol of her father's service and sacrifice.

"I simply wanted to bring him home and go to whatever lengths to do that," she said.

Christian Hill can be reached at 360-754-5427 or at chill@theolympian.com.

Taylor wrote a lengthy article about her search that appeared in the March issue of LOST Magazine. The full article can be read at www.lostmag.com/issue4/father.php.

Some information and details for this story were pulled from that article with Taylor's permission.

Related stories from The Olympian