BEMIDJI-Eric Trueblood, co-owner of AirCorps Aviation in Bemidji, has returned from "Finding Loren" in Italy.
On July 23, Trueblood was among the 200 volunteers who traveled to a site just outside of the village of Bagnarola, Italy, where they believe 1st Lt. Loren E. Hintz's plane went down in the closing days of World War II.
The trip was a success in Trueblood's eyes, as pieces of the plane were recovered and Hintz's dog tags were found.
"It was more than what I expected it to be," Trueblood said. "The graciousness of the people of Italy really stood out."
For the past four years, Trueblood and AirCorps Aviation have been helping Hans Wronka, a Duluth man who himself has spent more than a decade trying to find out more about Hintz, his grandfather.
Hintz was killed in action on April 21, 1945, after his plane was shot down over Italy. Hintz left behind a pregnant wife, Gert, and a year-old daughter Gretchen back home in Iowa. The plane was never recovered.
As fate would have it, AirCorps Aviation is in the process of restoring the type of plane Wronka's grandfather flew in the war. As Trueblood and Wronka's relationship grew, AirCorps Aviation became more involved in Wronka's "Finding Loren" effort, which turned into a worldwide effort thanks to the internet and the aviation community. So much so that Trueblood went along to Italy to help recover the plane after Wronka and a network of volunteers felt they had discovered the spot where Hintz crashed 71 years ago.
Trueblood said the most exciting part of the dig-for everyone-was the discovery of the dog tags.
"It was euphoric," Trueblood said. "I was astounded that they found the dog tags. It's the proverbial needle in a haystack. If you think about finding something less than ⅛ of an inch thick and maybe an inch-and-a-half by two-and-a-half inches total. To think that you would actually be able to find something like that is remarkable." Trueblood was working on sorting plane parts when the dog tags were were uncovered.
"You could tell something big happened. . . You could just hear the excitement and the voices and it slowly amplified through the crowd," he said. "The family was out among the dig site, which I think made it more exciting."
Trueblood was at the site to use AirCorps Aviation's AirCorp Library, which catalogs parts from the planes of that era. However, he said much more than just airplane parts was found.
Human remains were also discovered at the site, however, officials can't be certain they are Hintz's. The area was heavily bombed during the war, and 70 years has passed. But finding the remains had an impact on Trueblood.
"To be in that situation, it forces your mind to think about things like sacrifice. The world kind of shuts down at that moment when you find something like that," he said.
About 1,000 people visited the excavation site during the dig, according to Trueblood. He added that the family of Hintz was very thankful for the worldwide support. The "Finding Loren" project is using social media to broadcast updates at the site using the hashtag #findingloren. You can also see updates on AirCorps Aviation's Facebook page.
In Trueblood's mind, Loren Hintz really has been found-not just in the plane parts or dog tags-but found in the connection people around the world.
"To think of that family searching for 12 years to find that site, to have it close the loop was really interesting," he said. "You go there searching for an airplane, but what you really find is people and how much good there is out there and what community really is."