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News & Stories
News | Nov. 11, 2022

World War II love letters help a daughter find her missing father

By Katie Sanders National Geographic

Sharon Estill Taylor has no firsthand memories of her father. The World War II fighter pilot was shot down over Germany in April 1945, when Taylor was just three weeks old.

The war in Europe ended less than a month later, but there was little closure for the Estills back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There was no body to bury or clarity on whether 1st Lt. Shannon Estill had bailed out before enemy anti-aircraft fire destroyed his P38J Lightning.

The letters the 22-year-old pilot had exchanged with his wife Mary since they were high school sweethearts stopped coming. Taylor’s father was deemed unaccounted for and eventually listed as killed in action, despite his body not being recovered.

One day when Taylor was seven years old, she sipped a chocolate malt at a soda counter as her paternal grandmother shared stories about their fallen hero, her eyes welling up as she remembered her late son. “Nana, it’s OK,” Taylor assured her: “I’m going to find him and bring him home.”

It was a promise Taylor, now a 77-year-old author and retired professor, would keep. In 2006, propelled by clues she pieced together from her parents’ wartime letters—along with help from military historians, eyewitnesses, and an excavation team—Taylor concluded a multi-decade mission to recover her father’s remains and bring him home.

Now, through an immersive sound and light show premiering at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans this Veterans Day, she’s bringing her parents’ experience, and a larger story of war casualties and their families, to new generations.

Growing up with a missing father

“I was raised by a grieving mother, with grieving grandparents a few doors down,” says Taylor. She’d tell the trash collector that her daddy died in the war. Even after her mother remarried, Taylor insisted on leaving an extra table setting for her missing father.

Nana Estill eventually gave Taylor a silver box containing some 450 letters—handwritten correspondences from her parents, spanning from their high school courtship to Estill’s pilot training to his deployment in the fall of 1944. Also included were six months’ worth of unopened letters Taylor’s mother continued writing after her husband went missing.

In the 1990s, with her own children grown, Taylor spent a summer transcribing the letters, getting to know her father through the resulting 3,000 typed pages. He cracked jokes, sketched pictures, and expressed how much he adored his wife. “I just love to get your letters, sweets, they are so like you, so dear. You are always in my heart, but they seem to bring you even nearer,” he wrote in March 1944.

Occasionally he’d reference the harshness and importance of the war: “I’m so thankful that you’re in the States and not over here somewhere. Everything except danger is scarce” and “I know that what I’m fighting for is right and decent.”

Concerned that his wife would soon give birth without him there, Estill told her that he’d gone to the military doctor for some reassurance. In a letter dated March 2, 1945, he diagrammed different methods for changing cloth diapers. “Every man in the 428th is worrying about the baby’s arrival,” he wrote.

When Taylor was born a few weeks later, Estill addressed his letter to his “Angel Girls.” He had just one more mission to fly before he could go home on leave. He attached a baby bootie to his flight helmet for good luck.

Was he really dead? What happened?
Beyond treasuring her father’s words for their wisdom, perspective, and poetry, Taylor also used them to piece together the mystery of what had happened on that final mission. Her research took her to the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

She learned that on April 13, 1945, Estill had taken off with 10 other fighter pilots to attack a railway station and destroy Nazi supply lines. She found a reference to a possible crash site near the town of Elsnig in eastern Germany.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it had become possible for Taylor to visit the potential crash site, territory the Soviet Union had long controlled. She connected with German military aviation historian Hans-Guenther Ploes, who agreed to help her try to find and identify any aircraft and human remains.

It was a long shot by all accounts, but a break came in 2003, when Ploes discovered the data plate from Estill’s downed plane, along with bone fragments nearby. The predecessor of the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) sent a recovery team from the United States.

In 2005, the DPAA team, accompanied by Ploes and Taylor, led a three-week excavation. Taylor says that from the moment she set foot on the site, she could feel that her dad was there. DNA analysis confirmed that the remains were his.

On a sunny October day in 2006, Taylor and her family buried her father’s remains at Arlington National Cemetery. Beyond fulfilling her vow to her grandmother, Taylor says her mission has been to get closer to her father and his legacy. “I wanted to know the truth,” she says. “I wanted his memory and what he did to never be forgotten.”

Taylor keeps photocopies of her parents’ letters in a cabinet in her Scottsdale, Arizona, home and looks to them for wisdom, which she sometimes shares with her four children and ten grandchildren. Every year on her father’s birthday, she writes him a letter.

She has also come to realize that she’s not alone in her pursuit to know the truth about her father’s death. There’s an entire population of Americans who’ve lost parents and loved ones in military conflicts overseas and wish they knew more. “Our reality was never, ‘Oh yay, the war is over. Daddy is coming home,’” Taylor says. “We were disenfranchised. I realized that was hugely important.”

Taylor shares her story widely, raising awareness of soldiers who never return from war and the importance of recovery efforts. An estimated 81,000 American service members’ bodies remain unaccounted for from past conflicts, and she wants others to know that, with the support of organizations like the DPAA, there are ongoing efforts to locate the fallen and bring closure to their families.

Taylor will never know exactly what her father’s final moments were like. But as she previews the Expressions of America exhibition in New Orleans and sees his loving words to his “Angel Girls” projected on a 90-foot-tall canvas, she feels, in a way, that he has finally come home.

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