The remains of an American airman lost in France during World War II were found in a military cemetery in Normandy, but it took decades for his identity to be confirmed.

After D-Day, it was believed that Lincoln Bundy perished. It would be fifty years before his family discovered the truth.

A GROUP OF FRENCHMEN WAS HUNTING WILD BOAR IN THE FOREST OF SAINT-SAUVANT IN CENTRAL FRANCE ON SUNDAY, DECEMBER 17, 1944. For those there, it was a momentous occasion: the first hunt of the season and the first since the Liberation. The guys came across many broken branches as they walked down a woodland path with dense thickets on both sides. They observed three big patches of disturbed soil when they looked closer. They scraped away at the dirt with their boots first, then their hands, and recoiled at what they saw.

The following morning, a group of six gendarmes with spades and many officials from the neighboring hamlet of Rom came. They discovered 31 severely decayed corpses over the course of several hours. Maupetit, a local physician, inspected the bodies, taking extensive notes on what was left of the dead and estimated the date of death to be early July. The vast majority wore the same military uniforms: thick twill jackets with two buttoned breast pockets and khaki trousers with two front pockets and press-stud fastenings. Two soldiers carried identification discs with their names and regimental numbers; one held a bottle of Macleans toothpaste, a British brand; another wore his underwear with the manufacturer’s name: “Faulat Belfast.”

One of the corpses was clothed differently from the others, according to Doctor Maupetit. He was dressed in low-laced shoes and a sweater with the French brand “Le Mont St Michel” on the inside. “Bullet in the skull, penetrated right parietal area,” the doctor said of the man’s wounds. Another bullet in the middle thorax and one in the praecordial area [the anterior chest wall above the heart].” “Presumed to have French nationality,” he said. The number 22 was given to this body. 

Three witnesses who lived near the forest testified at a brief inquiry on December 21 that they heard machine gun fire early on July 7th. According to Paul Alleau, a local Resistance member, “approximately 30 British parachutists” were arrested in the area in late June or early July, and their fate was “unknown.” Albert Charron, the commander of the local gendarmerie, prepared his report on the finding later that day; based on the evidence, all but one of the deceased were most likely “British parachutists,” he wrote.

Following the postmortems, the corpses were put in coffins with copies of their autopsy reports and glass tubes holding the numbers given to each body by Doctor Maupetit. On the outsides of the coffins, the same numbers were attached. The soldiers were put to rest at Rom’s village cemetery on the afternoon of December 23. The 30 soldiers were buried in a communal grave with one long row of headstones and a second shorter row of headstones; the guy believed to be a French civilian—probably a member of the Resistance—was buried nearby in his own plot.

He wasn’t French or British, however. He was an American, but his family would not hear of his tragic destiny for another half-century.

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades In the mid-1930s, Lincoln Bundy (center) poses with his father, James (far left), and brothers at their rural Arizona home. Bundy enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces when the war broke out. (Photo courtesy of Sasha Nielson)

LINCOLN DELMAR BUNDY, the eighth child of James and Chloe Bundy, was born on February 12, 1918. They shared 640 acres of property in Mount Trumbull, Arizona, with James’ parents, but for their child’s birth, they had to drive almost 60 miles to Saint George, Utah, since it was the closest town with a midwife. 

Bundy had a dreamy childhood. He explored the woods and hills with his siblings and relatives when he wasn’t attending the one-room schoolhouse. George C. Iverson, his older cousin, whose farm was three miles north of the Bundy family’s, shared his adventurous spirit. The two roamed the woods with their dogs, Strip and Van Dyke, toughening their bodies and refining their personalities as they fished, hunted, and climbed.

As he grew older, Bundy had a lot to be proud of. He was handsome and athletic, as well as brave, bright, and ambitious, yet he was uninterested in the constraints of a classroom. He enrolled at Dixie High School in Saint George after completing eighth grade at Mount Trumbull, but dropped out and moved to Kingman, Arizona, some 300 miles south, where he worked in the mines. The labor was difficult, but the pay was enough for a young kid. He put up his earnings and, in 1936, purchased his aunt’s property, which was 1,280 acres to the south of his father’s. Bundy owned his own ranch when he was just 18 years old. He aspired to breed Arizona’s best horses.

His intentions were thwarted by the war. He and George enrolled for the draft in October 1940, one month after Congress enacted the peacetime Burke-Wadsworth Act, which required all males between the ages of 21 and 35 to join the selective military. Neither had been conscripted when the US joined the war, but they knew their turn would come shortly. They decided it was better to join, so they drove to Kingman in January 1942 and presented themselves to the US Army Air Forces with a desire to become fighter pilots. George’s 6-foot-1-inch stature was enough for the recruiting officer to tell him he was too tall. He advised George to join the Marines, which he did. Lincoln, who is 5-foot-7 inches tall, was accepted as an aviation cadet. 

In April 1943, BUNDY graduated from the 63rd Army Air Forces Flying Training Detachment in Douglas, Georgia, and on May 28 at Napier Field in Alabama, the new second lieutenant earned his silver wings. Corporal George Iverson wrote to his mother from the Naval Air Station in Sitka, Alaska, that summer. He informed her, “I received a letter from Lincoln.” “Now that he has earned his wings, he is a pilot. More power to him, I say, even if it means saluting him if I ever see him. If he and I both get it out of here alive, we’re going to hop on an aircraft and chase a few clouds out in the distance.”

Bundy had also completed his training as the runner-up in a sharpshooting competition for the training division, and he was his intake’s best track and field athlete. The future looked bright. But first, he had some time off, which he took to Mount Trumbull in early June 1943. Bundy was “honored with a dance and social in the ward hall, with a big audience attending,” according to the local newspaper, Utah’s Washington County News.

Lincoln trained at Meridian, Mississippi, from August to October 1943, before joining the 486th Fighter Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group in late spring 1944, flying his P-51 out of the Royal Air Force station at Bodney in Norfolk, England. George Iverson, with the 4th Marine Division, departed for Saipan about the same time. (On the third day of combat for the island, he was wounded, rejoined his regiment a month later, and died on February 25, 1945, at Iwo Jima.)

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades Bundy, most likely in 1942, as an aviation cadet. In May 1943, he received his wings and realized his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. (Photo courtesy of Lyman Hafen)

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades Bundy’s unit, the 352nd Fighter Group, was nicknamed “Blue-nosed Bastards of Bodney” because of its unique P-51 Mustangs. (IWM FRE 2807, IWM FRE 2808, IWM FRE 2809, IWM F

The 486th Fighter Squadron took out on June 10, 1944, four days after the Allies landed on Normandy’s beaches, with instructions to target German reinforcements in France pouring into the beachhead. Bundy had given his Mustang Rustler a name, and his fighter was known as “Angus White Two.” Second Lieutenant William Reese, dubbed “Angus White Three,” was his wingman. “We had just completed strafing a convoy of vehicles, one of which Lt Bundy destroyed, with our flight commander, Major Stephen Andrew,” Reese wrote in his later battle report. I rejoined Major Andrew, but there was no reaction when the Major ordered Lt Bundy to rejoin the formation.”

Bundy had been picked out by one of the Luftwaffe’s best aces, Staffelkapitän (Squadron Commander) Lutz-Wilhelm Burkhardt of Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 1. In May 1942, he claimed the first of his wins in Russia; on June 10, Bundy’s Mustang became his 69th—and, as it turned out, final—victim before succumbing to recurring illness. Burkhardt’s Messerschmitt Me 109 had snatched the Mustang’s tail and began fire close to the ground. Bundy ascended high enough to bail off while remaining calm. 

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades On June 10, 1944, Luftwaffe ace Lutz-Wilhelm Burkhardt scored his 69th—and final—kill when he shot down Bundy’s P-51 over Normandy. (Image courtesy of Historynet Archives)

THE LAST SIGHT OF William Reese occurred above La Mailleraye, a little hamlet in the countryside, around 10:15 a.m. Lincoln Bundy first set foot on French land 60 miles south of there, between the towns of Les Aspres and Crulai, amid some woods. The Normandy beachhead was around 100 miles northwest of Paris. Bundy suffered some minor lacerations on his arms and legs as a result of the tree branches he had fallen through, but he was otherwise unharmed.

André Renard, a 24-year-old local who had seen the American bail out while working in a neighboring field, was the first to contact the pilot. Bundy was taken to a hay barn by Renard. Despite the fact that he didn’t speak English and Bundy didn’t understand French, the Frenchman was able to communicate the idea that Bundy should stay in the barn. He’d come back. Renard returned with a buddy, Daniel Laguette, and they were carrying food and civilian clothing, including a pair of low-laced shoes and a sweater. At nightfall, the three men emerged from the woods and entered Laguette’s home in Les Aspres. Bundy was greeted by Jean de Goussencourt, a local physician who washed and treated his wounds.

Bundy had to make a choice. Is it better for him to stay in Les Aspres? Should he follow the orders given to all airmen in the event they were shot down in France, which is to go south towards Spain? Renard and Laguette encouraged him to remain there; certainly the Americans would come soon to free Les Aspres. Bundy, on the other hand, thought it was his responsibility to set off for Spain on foot, regardless of the fact that it was 460 miles south. He felt confident in his ability to achieve his goal as an outdoorsman with cunning and initiative.

Bundy made incredible progress for two weeks, traveling at night and resting during the day. His only aids were a small compass stitched into his flight suit and a map of France printed on a silk handkerchief. He traveled 160 kilometers. Fuel was supplied by friendly peasants—bread in one hamlet, ham and cheese in the next. He foraged for fruit from trees and hedgerows, and drank from wells, drinking fountains, and animal troughs.

Bundy had arrived at the village of Anzec by the end of June. It was 10 miles east of the central French city of Poitiers, 200 miles southwest of Paris, and yet 300 miles from the Spanish border. He was weary, hungry, and untidy, looking more like a vagrant than a pilot. Bundy came upon Serge Guillon, a 15-year-old kid who had just returned from boarding school for the summer as he prepared to fill his water bottle from a farmyard trough. Bundy was soon chowing down on a delicious breakfast in the company of Serge’s father, Raphael, a local Resistance fighter. Raphael called two of his friends, Joseph Garnier and Daniel Villey, the latter an English-speaking law professor at Poitiers University. The Frenchmen urged Bundy to forget about Spain; it was an unachievable objective. They had another strategy, though: a squad of British paratroopers was conducting a sabotage operation from a nearby woodland hideaway. Bundy would be handed up to the British.

Bundy put on a jacket over his pullover and a pair of matching trousers the next morning, Saturday, July 1. Bundy handed his small compass to young Serge as a keepsake after no longer needing it, and then got on the back of Raphael Guillon’s bicycle and rode 15 kilometers behind him to the hamlet of Lussac-les-Châteaux. Another Resistant was waiting for them, and led Bundy to the Verrières woodland.

Captain John E. Tonkin of B Squadron, Special Air Service—a British special forces unit formed in 1941 to penetrate enemy territory, attack targets, and gather intelligence—sent a message to SAS headquarters in England at 9:41 that evening, requesting an identity check on “a Lincoln Bundy, USAAF” from his forest hideout. Tonkin was wary of the unknown guy who had been brought to his camp a few hours earlier, despite the fact that he sounded and looked American.

For Tonkin, a seasoned guerilla warrior, Lincoln’s arrival could not have come at a worse moment. Tonkin, 23, had joined a British special forces squad in North Africa in 1942 and was kidnapped by the Nazis during an operation in Italy the following year. He wasn’t held prisoner for long, however, as he escaped from the vehicle that was transporting him to a Gestapo interrogation and made his way to Allied lines.

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades Captain John E. Tonkin of the Special Air Service (SAS) of the United Kingdom relaxes in his French woodland hideout (above). The organization was collaborating with French Resistance fighters (seen below) to prevent the Germans from transporting troops and equipment north to Normandy. (Getty Images/Roger Viollet)

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades (HU 66210, IWM)

He and his squadron of 40 men, together with a group of 11 French Resistance fighters, had been operating in an area he characterized as “lousy with Germans” for the previous three weeks. Tonkin’s objective, dubbed Operation Bulbasket, was to disrupt the enemy’s communications lines from the south of France to Normandy, as well as the motorized columns and trains transporting German supplies and reinforcements north. Unfortunately, Tonkin quickly realized that many of his recruits to the unit were not mentally prepared for guerilla warfare. Furthermore, two of his most trusted troops went missing during a sabotage operation at a railway yard. 

Furthermore, Lieutenant Peter Weaver and three SAS troops had arrived at the camp the day before, on June 30. They’d dropped into the area two weeks previously, blowing a railway off its rails on their way 50 miles east to join Tonkin. Weaver, who was ten years Tonkin’s senior at 33, was concerned by what he saw to be a lack of discipline. Young ladies from the neighboring hamlet of Verrières were coming into the camp to flirt with the British troops, and some of the soldiers were making regular excursions to farms to gather eggs. Tonkin was “getting a bit out of his depth with his responsibilities,” according to Weaver.

He persuaded Tonkin to relocate to a different camp, which they did early the next day, July 2, bringing Bundy with them. The SAS squad moved a few miles south to a forested location with a well, following the advise of the Resistance members who were helping them. The well, however, ran empty almost quickly, and Tonkin was forced to return to Verrières at nightfall the same day. He planned to start looking for a new camp the following morning.

Lieutenant Weaver was startled awake just after daybreak by the sound of an explosion. “In my semi-sleepy condition, I couldn’t figure out what all the commotion was about,” he remembered. “Then it hit me: ‘Christ, we’re being mortared!’”

The Germans had figured out where they were hiding. There was a panic. It was a case of each guy for himself. The majority of them dashed down a hill into a valley, just as their Nazi ambushers had planned. Except for seven Frenchmen who were caught and brutally murdered, and an SAS officer, Lieutenant Tomos Stephens, who was beaten to death as he attempted to sneak past the Nazi barrier, they were gathered up and forced into trucks.

Weaver and Tonkin were among the four Frenchmen and seven SAS troops that managed to flee. “Betrayed and encircled by 400 Jerry [Germans], including SS and 2 field guns,” Tonkin wrote to England on July 7. “Ordered the scattering of the base.” He made a list of individuals who had escaped arrest and estimated that dozens more, including Lincoln Bundy, were now POWs.

Bundy and the other 31 SAS men were brought to the Wehrmacht’s 80th Corps headquarters in Poitiers, which was headed by Lieutenant General Curt Gallenkamp. They were reunited with the two missing SAS troops who had been detained only days before while on a mission at the train yard. Three injured SAS soldiers were taken to a hospital by the Germans for treatment. 

An officer informed the German 1st Army headquarters of the capture later that evening. In accordance with Hitler’s Kommandobefehl of October 1942—an order to kill all enemy special forces—troops Gallenkamp’s were instructed to shoot the captives. The general disagreed with the order, but lacked the courage to oppose it, so he withdrew from Poitiers on July 5. The job in Poitiers fell to Gallenkamp’s chief of staff, Colonel Herbert Koestlin, and the 80th Corps’ top intelligence officer, Captain Erich Schönig, while the three SAS members in the hospital were killed by fatal injection. As Schönig subsequently said during his war crimes trial, he claimed that since Lincoln Bundy was an airman, he should be spared, but Koestlin accused Bundy of being guilty by association. Schönig also revealed another crucial detail, namely, how the Nazis knew about the SAS hideaway. The two SAS troops who were apprehended at the end of June refused to talk until the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, the SS’s intelligence section) tortured them about the camp’s location. 

Auguste Cousson, a gardener residing on the outskirts of the Saint-Sauvant forest, was awoken at 5:30 a.m. on July 7 by “three bursts of machine gun fire and two rounds of cannon fire, followed by numerous single bullets.” They approached from the woodland road’s direction. Cousson was sent back to his home by a cordon of German troops when he went to investigate.

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades The only survivors of a German attack on July 3, 1944, were Captain Tonkin and Lieutenant Peter Weaver (left to right, center, top, with two unidentifiable soldiers). Members of the Resistance (such as these British soldiers praising the Resistance, below) were executed on the spot. On the morning of July 7, 1944, captured British soldiers were shot down and buried in the jungle, along with Bundy. Paul Mccue (Paul Mccue)

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades (Photo credit: AP)

The Bundy family thought Lincoln died in the aerial combat on June 10, 1944, for 50 years. 

The 352nd Jet Group Association was approached by British historian Paul McCue in 1995, who was looking for information on the fighter pilot. He assumed the association was aware of Bundy’s death prior to his execution by firing squad. They didn’t do it. For decades, the organization had made annual trips to Cambridge, England, to pay tribute to Bundy and the other 15 352nd airmen honored on the “Wall of the Missing” at Cambridge American Cemetery. McCue shared the material he had gleaned from British archives with the shocked association, including SAS operations reports, war crimes trial interviews, and court hearings.

The organization sought assistance from Sheriff Glenwood Humphries of Washington County, Utah, in locating any of Lincoln’s relatives. Lincoln’s younger sister, Nathella, happened to reside only a few streets away from Humphries. The family was taken aback by the news he delivered. How had the story taken so long to reach them?

In answer to the British War Office’s request for information on the assault, John Tonkin wrote a long memorandum in March 1945. He introduced himself as Lincoln Bundy and said that he was “dressed in civilian clothing.” Tonkin also said that the Frenchmen in their camp “were all shot instantly at Verrieres on July 3, 1944.” Despite the fact that four of them had gotten away, they were all found and accounted for. To put it another way, Corpse 22, the one wearing the “Le Mont St Michel” sweater and low-laced shoes, could only be Bundy.

Bundy’s corpse was unearthed and turned over to the US Army’s Graves Registration Service in 1945, in response to a request from the US Army’s Graves Registration Service. The “released remains were not those of the American deceased [and] were therefore classified as unknown X-331,” according to the Central Identification Laboratory.

Throughout the 1940s, the Americans attempted to find Bundy’s remains by requesting that the British exhume the other bodies buried at Rom Cemetery at the same time, but to no effect. The British insisted that they had delivered the required bones; the remainder were British troops who would be laid to rest in peace. The body known as X-331 remained in American custody until 1950, when it was restored to the British and interred in a separate grave at Rom Cemetery. “We have taken future responsibility for the care, upkeep, and permanent marking of the burial of 2/Lt Bundy, US.A.A.F,” the British told the US Embassy in London.

Nonetheless, there was further communication on the issue in 1951, when the State Department in Washington, D.C. notified the US ambassador in London that “the remains of Lt Bundy have not been found due to an administrative error.” As a result, Major General Edward F. Witsell, the adjutant general, stated that “there is insufficient evidence as to Lt Bundy’s fate to establish the fact of death and site of burial.”

This was not entirely accurate. Bundy was at the camp when it was assaulted, according to John Tonkin and other SAS survivors who testified to an SAS war crimes investigation team, and many German officers were convicted of the killings of the SAS troops and of Lincoln Bundy by a British military court in Germany in 1947. The lines of communication between the different organizations investigating the case—one of hundreds in the years after the war—were most likely broken, and the dots of information remained disconnected.

Much of the misunderstanding stemmed from a probable mistake by the Central Identification Laboratory, which had little to work with to begin with. They matched Bundy’s dental records to the deceased’s broken teeth and determined they weren’t the same person. The British considered the case closed and reinterred Bundy’s body in 1950; however, when the official Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone was erected over Bundy’s grave the following year with his name engraved in the stone, they did add “Buried in this or the nearby communal grave”—the one holding the 30 soldiers—in recognition of the American doubt. Despite the fact that 14 of the 30 other bodies were not definitely identified, it is the only gravestone among the 31 with such an inscription.

Surprisingly, none of this was conveyed to the Bundy family, with Sheriff Humphries being the first to inform them in 1995. Six of Lincoln’s relatives traveled to France in the summer of 2002 to see his execution site and last burial place. Their visit coincided with an official SAS memorial tour, which included many wartime soldiers of the regiment as well as John Tonkin’s 16-year-old grandson. When the Bundys met a tiny, 73-year-old guy, it was the most emotional moment of the trip. Serge Guillon had seen Lincoln at a trough in the village of Anzec fifty-eight years before, and it was an experience he would never forget. The old Frenchman (who died in 2023) had a present for the Americans, which Lincoln had given to the adolescent lad in June 1944. His teeny-tiny compass was the source of the problem.

Lincoln had thought that the compass and his own abilities would lead him to freedom, but they instead led him to a Nazi firing squad in a terrible twist of destiny.

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades Bundy’s tombstone (above) is placed in front of the mass grave of the British troops who died with him, all of whom are commemorated with wreaths in the SAS’s regimental colors. Bundy’s compass, which he gave to a French kid in 1944 (below), survived and was returned to his family 58 years later. (Photo courtesy of Nigel Francis)

Shot Down in France, An American Airman’s Final Fate Remained a Mystery for Decades ‘Holly Bundy’ is a fictional character created by Holly Bundy.

This story appeared in the World War II magazine in June 2023.

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