She transcribed the letters exchanged between her mother and father to figure out what happened to him.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 8, 2022. It has since been updated.
Wars tear up families and cause immense hurt to all those involved. Even once it is over, families often spend years waiting for their loved ones to return home. According to Soldier's Walk Memorial Park, around 73,000 Americans who fought in World War II are still unaccounted for. Nobody knows if or how they lost their lives in the conflict. While some family members have lost hope of ever getting answers in the decades since the end of the war, there are some families who are still doing everything they can to find their loved ones.
Sharon Estill Taylor's father was a fighter pilot who was shot down in Germany in April 1945. She was just 3 weeks old at the time and has no early memories that relate to her father. The war in Europe ceased almost a month later and the family from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, received no word for 1st Lt. Shannon Estill. They had no idea whether he survived or was killed when his P38J Lightning was struck with anti-aircraft fire. Moreover, the letters he used to send his wife Mary also stopped and he was later declared dead in action even though his body was never recovered.
On Friday April 13, 1945, US fighter pilot 1st Lt. Shannon Estill’s P-38 exploded over eastern Germany. Here’s how his then-3-wk old daughter, now 77, tracked down his remains and brought him home. #VeteransDay @dodpaa @NatGeo @WWIImuseumhttps://t.co/AzJtKKibWe— Katie S. Sanders (@KatieSSanders) November 8, 2022
When she was 7 years old, Sharon made a promise to her grandmother. "Nana, it's OK. I’m going to find him and bring him home," she promised. Although it took her more than five decades, Sharon—who is now 77—kept her word successfully. She completed the multidecade journey to find her father's remains and bring him home in 2006, driven by clues she put together from her parents' wartime letters and with the help of military historians, eyewitnesses and an excavation crew.
She said, "I was raised by a grieving mother, with grieving grandparents a few doors down." Sharon always kept his memory alive by leaving an extra table setting for him. Nana Estill eventually handed her a silver box containing 450 letters her parents had sent each other, spanning from their high school courting days to Estill's pilot training to his departure in the fall of 1944. Six months' worth of unread letters sent by Taylor's mother after her husband went missing were also included.
In the 1990s, when Sharon's children had grown up, she took out time to transcribe these letters. They showed that her father was extremely excited about her birth and anxious that he would not be there to welcome her into the world. Estill informed Mary in his letters that he had sought comfort from the military doctor. In one letter dated March 2, 1945, he illustrated various ways for changing cloth diapers, reports National Geographic.
He just had one more assignment to complete before he could return home on leave. For good luck, he fastened a baby bootie to his flying helmet. Sharon used these letters to solve the puzzle of what happened on that last expedition. She visited the Library of Congress and the National Archives as part of her investigation. She discovered that Estill had flown out with 10 other fighter pilots on April 13, 1945, to attack a railway station and disrupt Nazi supply lines. She also came across a reference to a likely crash site in the eastern German town of Elsnig.
Sharon planned to visit this crash site and connected with German military aviation historian Hans-Guenther Ploes to help her identify any human or aircraft remains. The turning point in her investigation came in 2003 when Ploes discovered the data plate from Estill's downed plane, along with bone fragments nearby. A recovery team from the United States was eventually deployed by the predecessor of the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
I did! Read "Phantom Father- A Daughter's Quest for Elegy," the story of my father's fateful flight during the last week of WWII. His plane was shot down near Berlin. https://t.co/gbpNX7xf9o— Sharon Estill Taylor (@m_ravely) June 16, 2019
The DPAA crew, along with Ploes and Sharon, led a three-week excavation in 2005. Sharon revealed that she could feel her father's presence from the minute she stepped into the property. DNA testing verified that the remains belonged to him. Sharon and her family buried her father's ashes at Arlington National Cemetery on a bright October day in 2006. She explained that her objective with the mission was to become closer to her father and his legacy, in addition to honoring the promise to her grandmother. She said, "Oh yay, the war is over. Daddy is coming home. We were disenfranchised. I realized that was hugely important." Sharon documented her journey and discovery through her book "Phantom Father: A Daughter's Quest for Elegy."