Military

Shot Down in 1944, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ B-17 Pilot Flies Home

January 13, 2023Carl Prine
German Luftwaffe fighters shot down his B-17G Flying Fortress in 1944, but military officials have identified the remains of 1st Lt. Carl D. Nesbitt and he's slated to be buried in Pennsylvania on May 15, 2023, in Pennsylvania. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

German Luftwaffe fighters shot down his B-17G Flying Fortress in 1944, but military officials have identified the remains of 1st Lt. Carl D. Nesbitt and he's slated to be buried in Pennsylvania on May 15, 2023, in Pennsylvania. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Shot down over Germany in 1944, the pilot of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is finally home and will soon fly off to his funeral.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, the Defense POW/MIA Account Agency announced that the remains of US Army Air Force 1st Lt. Carl D. Nesbitt will be buried May 15 in Annville, Pennsylvania.

On May 29, 1944, the Lima, Ohio, man was piloting “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the lead B-17G Flying Fortress, on a bombing raid from England to Germany, when Luftwaffe fighters pounced on his 569th Bombardment Squadron roughly 24 nautical miles northeast of Leipzig.

Nesbitt’s plane survived the first two waves of interceptors. But on the third German sortie, rounds ripped apart the bomber’s left aileron and wing, and flames swirled through Engine 1.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

Flak bursts near the lead plane as Flying Fortresses drop their bombs on Leipzig, Germany, during a Sunday, Feb. 20, 1944, raid on Nazi aircraft factories. National Archives photo.

Co-pilot 2nd Lt. Robert E. “Bob” Patterson; Staff Sgt. Weldon A. Pillow, the radio operator; waist gunners Staff Sgt. Lester A. Miller and Staff Sgt. William J. “Bill” Striffler; tail gunner Staff Sgt. Joe Finch; and even Staff Sgt. George Hauskins, their ball turret gunner, bailed out over Germany, where they became prisoners of war.

But Nesbitt; his navigator, 2nd Lt. Wayne L. Dyer; their bombardier, 1st Lt. Melvin Bernard Meyer; and Tech. Sgt. Lyle L. Larson, the engineer and top turret gunner, rode the Flying Fortress down to their deaths.

It speared into a swamp near Horst. Nesbitt was 23, and left behind a wife in Canton, Ohio.

Tracked by its serial number 42-39953, the bomber had been rechristened twice before its nose art displayed “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Previously, it went by “Dutch Cleaner.” And then “Flying Coffin.”

Now, it was just wreckage, hidden by the fog of war.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency determined that US Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Carl D. Nesbitt, 23, of Lima, Ohio, was killed during World War II, and his remains were officialy identified on Sept. 9, 2022. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency photos.

Because there were no German records indicating that Nesbitt and his three crew members became POWs, military officials declared them dead in 1946 and began trying to find their bodies for reburial in a US cemetery.

But the US Army always suspected some of the aircrew ended up in a local graveyard near the town of Schönwalde. That’s because in late 1946, personnel from the American Graves Registration Command found and identified the remains of one of the lost Flying Fortress crewmen there.

They figured that any crew members they couldn’t find in the cemetery likely never left the marsh, where the bomber crashed.

But Cold War tensions kept the commission from searching the swamp for the missing men.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress delivers its load of high explosive and incendiary bombs over the city of Nurnberg, Germany, during and attack on railyards and repair shops on Feb. 20, 1945. National Archives photo.

In the wake of Germany’s 1945 surrender, the Soviet Union occupied the territory around Leipzig. And in 1950, Soviet forces began blocking US investigators from searching for lost servicemen.

On April 21, 1953, the Pentagon ruled Nesbitt’s body was unrecoverable.

In 2012, 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, US officials relocated the downed “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The Defense POW/MIA Account Agency hammered out an agreement with the German landowner in 2015 to excavate the site. And from July 17 to Aug. 12, 2019, officials dug up debris from the marsh, including human bones and teeth.

They turned over the remains to German authorities, who shipped the bones to the federal laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

Yankee Doodle Dandy

US Army 8th Air Force fighters streak through a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress formation to comb the sky for possible enemy planes, during a raid on German transportation facilities in 1945. National Archives photo.

At Offutt, scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Account Agency and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used dental and bone analysis, plus mitochondrial DNA evidence, to finally identify the missing pilot.

On Sept. 9, 2022, military officials declared Nesbitt had been found.

Nesbitt’s name is still etched on the Tablets of the Missing at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission graveyard in Hombourg, Belgium.

But workers affixed a rosette next to his name, indicating that he’s been identified and will be laid to rest in a marked tomb.

Read Next: Lost During Ploesti Raid, Liberator Gunner Finally Flying Home

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He previously worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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