Massachusetts

Mashie Miaskiewicz, a Salem War Hero, Comes Home

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In 1942, like thousands of men from throughout New England, a young man from a Polish neighborhood in Salem, Mass., enlisted to fight for his country during World  War II.  Mieczyslaus Miaskiewicz (pronounced Mis-kev-itch), known as Mashie, was one of those young men.

Mieczyslaus (Mashie) Miaskiewicz’s Army photo

Derby Street

Mashie grew up on Derby Street in the heart of Polish Salem, the son of Czeslaw Miaskiewicz, an emigrant from Poland.  The family was devoutly Catholic, producing two priests among the seven children surviving to adulthood.

The Derby Street neighborhood was tight knit.  Polish families utilized the St. John’s Society, a fraternal organization that offered insurance and sick benefits to members. It also promoted a marching band, drill team and athletic teams.  The society was housed in St. Joseph’s Hall at 160 Derby Street, a building that still stands today at the corner of Derby Street and Palfrey Court.

The four-story Kotarski building at 167-69 Derby Street, Salem. Mashie Miaskiewicz lived here for most of his childhood. Demolished in 1938. (Peabody Essex Museum photograph).

Mashie attended St. John’s Polish School on Herbert Street, where Polish language was part of the curriculum. He liked sports, worked out at the YMCA and bowled.

Like so many men in Salem back then, Mashie’s father was a leather worker. He worked for many years at Korn’s leather factory in Peabody.  It was hard work, dirty work, smelly work and sometimes dangerous, but it was good pay and steady.  In 1934, when he was 18, Mashie followed his father into the leather factory.  It is unclear if he graduated from high school.

Mashie’s insular world came to an end with the advent of World War II.  He enlisted in the Army in 1942.

Staff Sgt. Mashie

By late 1943, he achieved the rank of staff sergeant and was flight engineer aboard a B-17g bomber, called the Daisy Mae, stationed in Tortorella, Italy, part of 347th Bomber Squadron, 99th Bomber Group.   The B-17, Flying Fortress, was a heavy bomber with a wingspan of over 100 feet, powered by four, 1,200 hp engines.  It was the ideal aircraft for long-distance missions.  But it was hazardous duty fraught with danger from antiaircraft fire.  Roughly one third of aircraft operating over enemy territory in Europe were shot down.

A restored B-17g Flying Fortress similar to the aircraft Mashie Miaskiewicz served on as flight engineer and top gunner. (Photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond www.defenselink.mil/multimedia).

Mashie’s job was to know the workings of the airplane better than anyone else, including the pilot. He must know engine mechanics, fuel consumption, and operation of all equipment, including the radio, bombing equipment, and armaments.  It required considerable technical training.  And he must be a gunner as well.  It was a vital job placing a lot of responsibility on the former leather worker from Salem.

Final Mission

On May 18, 1944, the 347th Bomb Squadron received orders to bomb the oilfields at Ploesti, Romania, a vital oil supply for the Third Reich.  The squadron flew in a box formation, a horizontally and vertically staggered formation that concentrated the bombers’ guns for defensive purposes.  A sudden change in the weather forced the Daisy Mae to return home before completing the mission.

A refinery burning in Ploesti after a U.S. bombing raid, 1943.

Flying over Yugoslavia, within sight of the Adriatic Sea, the aircraft was hit by flak, blowing the nose section completely off, killing the pilots and radio operator.   With the props still rotating, the remainder of the plane went into a rightward spiral, allowing enough time for some of the crew to bail out.

Three crew members, the bombardier, the navigator, and the waist gunner, bailed out and survived.  The rest, including Mashie, were killed.

The Body on a Hillside

After the war, American forensic teams scoured Europe searching for the remains of those missing in action.  Miaskiewicz’s remains could not be positively identified from those located at the Daisy Mae crash site, and what was presumed to be his remains were flown to the United States and buried at the National Cemetery on Long Island.

Over the next 60 years, his sisters Christine and Theresa Miaskiewicz would travel to Long Island to visit their brother’s grave.

But that changed dramatically in 2011, when the Miaskiewicz sisters were contacted by the United States military with astonishing news.

A Bosnian archaeological team was searching the Mostar area for remains of Bosnians who perished in mass killings after World War II.  Near the village of Stubica, the Bosnian team heard about an American airman shot down during the war. Villagers had discovered his body and brought it for burial on a nearby hillside. Apparently, his remains were still there.

Bosnian authorities alerted the U.S. ambassador by letter, which included a photograph of American dog tags taken from the airman’s remains.  A week later forensic specialists went to Stubica to make a positive identification.  There they reassembled the skeletal remains.

At that point, although the identification was not yet positive, the indications were overwhelming. SSgt Mieczyslaus Miaskiewicz had not been buried in New York, but rather in a hillside grave in Bosnia.

The Mystery Solved

How did Mashie’s remains end up on a Bosnian hillside?  Mashie’s chute never opened, and he plummeted to the ground to his death.  It is likely for that reason that he landed away from the other crew members. Then American forensic teams missed his remains after the war.

Villagers near Stubica saw the giant plane come down.  They found Miaskiewicz’s body, wrapped him in his parachute and buried him. They kept his artifacts safe, including his dog tags, rosary beads and a crucifix. The villagers prayed and lit candles at the gravesite over the years. As far as they knew, the American serviceman had nobody to pray for him.

Mashie Returns to Salem

The reburial ceremony for Mashie Miaskiewicz at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Salem, 67 years after he was shot down over Bosnia. (Courtesy of William Legault).

Back in Salem, in the very house where they first got word that Mashie was missing 67 years before, Miaskiewicz’ sisters got a phone call.

They were asked to provide DNA samples so that a positive identification could be made, the last piece in the identification puzzle.

At last, their brother would be coming home.

Today, he is buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Salem.

End Notes

James F. Lee, the author of this story, is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and AAA Tidewater Traveler Magazine. He can be reached at www.jamesflee.com and 570-713-5926.

Sources:

In the Heart of Polish Salem: An Ethnohistorical Study of St. Joseph Hall and Its Neighborhood, (Stanton and Becker, NPS, 2009).

Email correspondence with Theresa Miaskiewicz via Thomas Miaskiewicz.

U.S. City Directories, Salem, MA, 1922-1943, and U.S. Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.

“So Close: The Last Flight of the Daisy Mae,” by David J. Kinsey.  99th Bombardment Group Historical Society Newsletter, December 2012.

“A WWII Tragedy from Sixteen Brief V-mails,” by David Steinert, Motorpool Messenger, August 2010.

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/over-cauldron-ploesti-american-air-war-romania

 

 

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