In April 13, 1945, Lt. John W. Herb would step for the final time into his fighter-bomber — the same P-51D Mustang where he once stood on the wing, smiling broadly with goggles in hand as he posed for a picture.
World War II was nearly done, with Nazi Germany just a few weeks from surrender and Europe in tatters. But that didn’t stop Allied attack missions, including the one Herb, a 1940 graduate of Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, took part in as part of 368th Fighter Squadron, based out of East Wretham, England.
He never returned to base, and his fate, at least to Americans, would be unknown for 70 years.
Herb’s story might’ve still been untold if not for memories haunting a German man, who, as a 5-year-old, watched a burning plane fly over him before crashing into woods near Gudow, east of Hamburg.
Last year, investigators found Herb’s remains, along with his RMA class ring, and they told of his tragic ending — he apparently survived the crash, only to be shot in the head and his body dumped in a shallow grave.
Herb, who had been in the Army Air Corps for two years when he was killed at 22, is scheduled to get a proper burial on June 18, when he will be put to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
“It’s just a remarkable story and we never, ever thought he would be recovered,” said Patti Herb, an Ohio resident whose father-in-law was John Herb’s uncle.
“Nobody ever knew where he went down. All we knew was that he was missing in action and his parents were absolutely devastated — that was their only child.”
Herb was quite the family legend, with mystery shrouding much of his life and death, down to the name painted across the front of his plane, Mary Lou.
“When my husband was growing up, all he heard was stories (about John Herb), who was an only son, was very bright and got a scholarship at (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and went to Riverside. And he went off to be in the war.”
Patti Herb, who is writing a book about the family’s ordeal, said her husband, Mike, has told stories of how he and his brothers, as young boys, used to play with their lost relative’s swords from Riverside.
She doesn’t know why Herb’s parents chose to send the young man to Gainesville in 1937, but she said his parents doted on him.
“He had everything he wanted,” Herb said.
John Herb excelled at Riverside, playing sports, performing in the band and working for the yearbook, Bayonet.
Herb, beaming in his yearbook photos with his dark hair slicked back, was known as “Herby” as a high school senior and “Herbo” as a postgraduate — a program Riverside sponsored in those days.
The yearbooks showed that, as a high schooler, he planned on attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As a postgraduate, in 1941, his plans changed, as he wanted to go to MIT and become a chemical engineer.
Then everything changed as America was plunged into war after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
War Department records show Herb entered active service on Feb. 10, 1943, and that he posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross. His cause of death is listed as killed in action.
On April 13, 1945, his unit was ordered to attack a railroad area near Neumunster, Germany, where they destroyed 15 enemy aircraft and seven locomotives.
Officials believe that, during the mission, Herb flew too close to trees and his plane’s coolant system was torn off. Unable to gain altitude, the plane eventually crashed into trees and fell burning to the ground.
No airman saw him leaving the plane.
In 1950, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Command conducted an investigation of the presumed crash site, but Herb’s wingman steered authorities to another site in Russian-controlled East Germany.
As a youngster, Manfred Romer watched the burning plane fly overhead.
“Following clues of village lore, he began asking questions and learned of a grave, which had been cared for by a female forestry worker,” according to Riverside’s narrative of Herb’s story.
Romer “eventually found witnesses of the crash, who maintained Herb survived the crash, but was shot by persons in uniform and buried nearby.”
Using a metal detector, Romer continued his investigation and found parts of the wrecked airplane. At this point, he contacted German officials, who notified the U.S. Department of Defense.
In June 2014, Romer, then 74, led an investigation team to the crash site, and Herb’s remains were found about 40 centimeters deep in sandy soil.
“The scene and mood of the team were serious and somber as the excavation continued,” wrote Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Deeb, a member of the team, in a Feb. 27 email to RMA president Col. Jim Benson.
“While conducting dry screening of the surrounding dirt, the team found what, at first glance, seemed to be metal parachute material.”
The metal was not Air Force-issued equipment but Herb’s class ring with the year 1940 on one side of the blue stone and the initials JWH inscribed inside the band.
There was no mistaking the identity of the pilot.
“At the completion of the operation, both American and German tears were shed,” Deeb wrote. “When the team re-deployed to the United States, a (memorial) ceremony was solemnly conducted in the pouring rain befitting the return of a fallen hero.”
For Benson, the news about a former cadet’s discovery and repatriation hit home in a very personal way.
“My father was killed in World War II and he also never came home,” he said. “There were some remains dug up in New Guinea and moved back in the 1950s, but there was never a confirmation they were (his).”
A private international group participating in the crash investigation, Missing Allied Air Crew Research Team, contacted a couple of family members in Colorado about the find.
“They thought it was a scam,” Patti Herb said, adding that her husband’s cousins kept wondering, “When are you going to ask for the money?”
Mike Herb began checking out their story, calling the research team.
“He found out, after about 20 minutes of talking (to them), that this was the real deal,” Patti said. “They were very limited in what they could tell us, (as) they didn’t want to step on the military’s toes.
“After several conversations, my husband realized that was really, truly happening.”
In February, military officials called the Herbs to say they had positively identified John Herb.
“This is like a Clint Eastwood story,” she said of the famous actor-director. “He needs to put this into a movie.”
The story has resonated through Riverside, which plans to send a delegation to Herb’s services in Washington. The school is planning a reception at an alumnus’ house, said Amanda Griffin, vice president for advancement.
Herb’s story “began to take on a life of its own,” Griffin said.
“It just snowballed,” said Erroll Bisso, director of alumni relations.
There are a couple of key mysteries still remaining — something that has Riverside officials and the family still scratching their heads.
The German officers who pulled Herb from the wreckage and shot him “took his boots, coat, his dog tags, then buried him,” Patti Herb said.
But they didn’t take his ring, which also was valuable.
And then the biggie: Who was Mary Lou?
“Everybody wants to know who she was,” Patti Herb said. “I would love to know.”