For nearly two decades, Hans Wronka has helped clients investigate and remediate sites with contaminated soil, groundwater, and sediment. Recently, he used his investigation skills for a personal project—digging up his grandfather’s past, literally. Read on for the full story.
In July, Hans traveled to a small village near Bologna, Italy, the site of a plane crash that killed his grandfather during World War II. Hans’s trip was the culmination of a 16-year journey to uncover Loren Hintz’s story. The 27-year-old fighter pilot from Iowa was shot down by German troops in 1945 on his sixty-sixth mission, and the crash site was never found. Loren never made it home to his baby daughter and pregnant wife.
Hans’s quest began in 2000 when he came across a reunion website for his grandfather’s squadron and sought information about the crash. In 2005, while working on a Barr project with former colleague John Hunt, Hans discovered that John’s father-in-law, Bob, served in Loren’s squadron in Italy and was a close friend. Bob provided a tangible connection to Loren’s life during the war.
In 2012, Hans had two major breakthroughs in investigating his grandfather’s death.
The first was an email from Piero Fabbri, an Italian pilot who had, incredibly, found Han’s original inquiry posted on the squadron reunion website. Piero spent hours flying low over Italian farm fields while Hans continued investigating military records. Eventually, the duo narrowed the crash location to Bagnarola. When Hans visited the village that summer, he and Piero met with locals, saw firsthand the effects of the war, and spent hours in the air looking for clues—generating more leads but finding no crash site.
The second breakthrough was when Hans connected with Eric Trueblood of AirCorps Aviation of Bemidji, who was restoring the exact model of P-47 Thunderbolt that Loren flew. Suddenly, Hans had access to key information that could help identify his grandfather’s plane.
In 2014, pieces began falling into place. Piero met a villager who, as a young boy, remembered staring into a deep crater full of airplane debris. He took Piero to the edge of a farm field where, unbelievably, chunks of aluminum and exploded rounds of ammunition were still strewn. An electro-magnetometer detected a large metallic object 16 feet below the surface.
Piero and a team of 80 volunteers began procuring permits and preparing the site for excavation in 2016. Hans and his family arrived in mid-July. Just minutes into the dig, a machine gun from Loren’s plane was uncovered (see top photo at left). Hours later, both of Loren’s dog tags were found along with other personal effects, including a survival kit, comb, and Bowie knife.
“I was unprepared for how much we would find,” Hans said, admitting he is still a bit overwhelmed. What began as a personal quest has grown into an international story of friendship, generosity, and adventure.
“This journey has renewed our sense of community, of human spirit, of peace, of closure,” he said, deeply grateful for the enormous efforts by others to aid him and his family in their quest.