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Italian World War II researcher seeks public’s help in telling lost airman’s story

World War II bomber crews faced the constant threat of enemy fighters and "flak" during their missions over occupied Europe, much like the crew of this B-24 Liberator on a bombing mission over Germany in 1945. Airmen faced capture by the German military when they were forced to parachute from damaged aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Sometime on Dec. 17, 1944, a plane flown by U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Elwood Lawson of Escondido was struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire in the skies over the Italian coastal city of La Spezia and it crashed into the Ligurian Sea.

Lawson’s body was never recovered and the backstory of the 22-year-old flyer’s childhood, family and military service has also disappeared without a trace. Now a World War II aeronautical historian from Mantua, Italy, is hoping to trace Lawson’s life story with help from the residents of Escondido.

Last week, Claudio Mischi, a 59-year-old retired metalworker and war researcher, reached out to the Facebook group Escondido Friends in the hope of tracing Lawson’s life and times. Several followers of the page and members of the Escondido Historical Society found a census document listing family members, but the search for Lawson’s relatives has proven elusive so far.

For the past 20 years, Mischi has been researching World War II aircraft and writing about Allied pilots who died in air battles over Northern Italy during World War II. Since he retired in 2018, he has dedicated himself full time to his research and his writing has been published in a book, historical articles and on WWII-related websites. A major area of his interest has been telling the stories of the aviators of about 80 planes shot down in 1944 and 1945 in the Po Valley in the province of Mantua.

“I have been a fan of military aviation since I was a boy,” Mischi said in an interview via email. “My relatives who lived through the war always told me the same things that I heard listening to the thousands of elderly people I interviewed in the last 20 years. The war period for Italian civilians can be summed up in two words: hunger and fear.”

Besides poring over public records that include mission and lost airmen reports, telegrams, news articles and historical documents, Mischi has also conducted interviews with surviving WWII flyers and family members of the deceased pilots. He has also interviewed thousands of Italians who, as children or young adults, had firsthand knowledge of the air battles and plane crashes in the hills and sea around their villages. Mischi said their eyewitness accounts are often harrowing.

“My stories are not only the stories of the aviators, but I also tell the historical moment of what the Italian civilians experienced. Their testimonies often lay bare the raw reality of the moment, the coldness and ruthlessness,” Mischi said. In one case, Italian villagers saw German soldiers pull an injured U.S. pilot from his crashed plane and left him to suffer and die on the ground with no aid. In another, the Germans cut the finger off a dead U.S. pilot to take his wedding ring and they stripped him of his clothes and boots.

Mischi said his goal is to tell these heroic pilots’ stories before they’re lost to time.

“From a name and surname, I try to give the pilot a face, to tell of his often short life,” Mischi said. “I hope to be able to trace Elwood Lawson’s relatives to be able to write in more detail the story of this boy who died at the age of 22 thousands of kilometers away from his family. I want to deliver his story to posterity, to make known, not to forget, the sufferings of those who lived, fought, suffered, were injured or died during the second world war.”

Mischi said he discovered Lawson’s story about a month ago, after reading an unclassified Missing Air Crew Report document about two P-47 pilots from the U.S. Army Air Force’s 350th Fighter Group whose planes were both lost in combat on the same day. Last month, Mischi interviewed an Italian man who, at age 10, saw both planes go down in the sea near the Tuscan town of Marina di Massa.

One of the P-47 Thunderbolt planes was piloted by 1st Lt. Robert G. Johnson, whose body was recovered and is now buried at a cemetery in Florence. The other plane was flown by Lawson. Mischi would like to find the wreckage of Lawson’s plane and his remains and he wants to learn more about the man himself.

According to a draft registration card, census report and other public records that Mischi has unearthed, Elwood William Lawson was born in San Diego on Dec. 7, 1922. He was 20 years old when he filled out his draft registration card to enter the service in 1942, listing his home address as 337 W. Grand Ave. in Escondido, an address now occupied by a beauty salon.

Genealogical research by Mischi’s friend, Tina Virginia Sanginetti, found he was the son of William R. Lawson, who died in 1976, and Bertha Mae Cozzell, who died in 1989. He had one older brother, Robert W. Lawson, who died in 1997. Elwood was not married and had no descendants, but Robert had two sons. Mischi hopes to speak to those men or their children.

He would also like to find photos of Elwood Lawson as a boy and know what he was like, what his interests were, if he was engaged to be married, what jobs he had before the war, his military training and his war flight records. Mischi would also like to gather photos of artifacts and documents that are typically saved by families who lost family members in the war, such as telegrams informing the family that Lawson was missing or killed in action. Anyone with information on Lawson is asked to contact him via email at [email protected].

The greatest reward of Mischi’s research is sharing his completed articles with the families of lost flyers. One of the first cases he ever researched was a pilot of unknown nationality who was captured in 1944 after bailing out of a burning bomber into a Mantuan lake. After years of research on the case, Mischi met that pilot, an American, when he came to the Mantuan provicnce in 2004 for the dedication of a monument in memory of his co-pilot and three crewmen who died in the crash.

“That was a very important and moving moment in my life,” Mischi said.


© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune