FGCU research team heading to Germany to find, recover missing WWII airmen

Reporter: Anika Henanger
Published: Updated:

Lisa Szymanski saw her father alive for the last time in 1964.

Staff Sergeant Lawrence Woods went missing in action that year after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War.

“When the plane went down seven got out and one didn’t and that was my dad. One witness said someone — which I know now as was my father — parachuted out and he was on fire,” said Szymanski.

For fifty years, Szymanski, her siblings, and her mom never knew exactly what happened.

Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods
Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods

Szymanski only knew her dad through old photographs.

“I remember going to bed with his picture and then one night she [mom] caught me and she said you can’t keep doing this…” Szymanski said.

“What would he have looked like? What would he be doing?” Szymanski said.

Szymanski moved forward, marrying a military man, Steven.

It wasn’t until decades later, she got a call.

“It was like it just happened,” Szymanski said.

In 2013, a team working with the government to find missing servicemen unearthed Sgt. Woods’ remains.
The team finally brought Szymanski’s dad’s remains home nearly half a century after his plane went down.

Green Berets buried Sgt. Woods at Arlington National Cemetery.

“If it wasn’t for people like them families like me we wouldn’t have closure,” Lisa Szymanski said.

“Because we know they’re not forgotten,” said Steven Szymanski.

Sadly, Lisa Szymanski’s fathers’ story is not unique. More than 1500 Americans are still missing in action dating back to World War II.

A group here in Southwest Florida is trying to help find our missing servicemen.

Dr. Alison Elgart is part of that team from Florida Gulf Coast University working to help families like Szymanski’s.

The team didn’t work on Woods’ case but they will soon leave on a mission to recover the remains of three World War II airmen.

“If they are there — we will find them,’ said Dr. Alison Elgart.

Dr. Elgart said their team of seventeen will travel to the hills of Germany.

“We will be digging! And possibly digging pretty deeply,” Dr. Elgar said.

Dr. Elgart brings a toolbox of experience in archaeology and history, using the tiniest of details to identify remains.

“I look at their teeth and try to find out things about them by their teeth,” Dr. Elgart said.

Sometimes, there is little left for teams to use to identify the remains. Cases like Sgt. Woods can be especially difficult because decades later, witnesses have moved away or passed on.

“The one witness, he was still alive he was 94 years old said the whole village moved out because they believe if a person is to die tragically like that their soul can’t rest,” Szymanski said.

Another member of the team, Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist, brings the experience of a crime scene investigator to the mission.

What may look like junk or trash to the average person can provide a treasure trove of clues for Dr. Walsh-Haney.

“[We hope to be] finding life support equipment and pieces of the plane, where we can say we’re in the right spot. But now we’re also focusing on finding what could be left and that would be skeletal and dental remains, Dr. Heather Walsh-Haney said.

The Florida Gulf Coast University team will only have a month to unearth the remains.

There’s no guarantee they will find any remains or artifacts at all; yet, if they find them, a meticulous process ensues.

The team will likely snap hundreds of photos, piece together bones, and test DNA to match remains with their loved ones.

It’s a mission with a personal meaning for team member and recent graduate, Dee Lopez.

“Just knowing that if something were to happen, since I do still have a younger brother that’s active, there are people out there who care,” said Florida Gulf Coast University alum and lab coordinator Dee Lopez.

Team members say while their mission to find remains, it’s also to find hope and help for families still wondering what happened to their loved ones.

For families like the Szymanskis, the search delivered closure, even if decades later.

“There [are] more people out there I really believe with all my heart maybe not all, but a lot of them will be found,” Szymanski said.


The FGCU team will head to Germany next month. They will also blog during their journey. Click here for more information.

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