By Kevin Wilson: PNT Managing Editor
Leo Eminger of Upton has been presumed dead since Sept. 24, 1942. Over the last year-and-a-half, Dave Tanner has dedicated every minute he can spare to make sure the memory of Eminger, his great-uncle, lives on.
“No man is ever dead until he’s forgotten,” Tanner said, “and I’ve never been able to shake Leo out of my head. Why, I have no clue.”
Tanner, a retired state environmental worker who lives in Clovis, was born five years after Eminger, a navigator with the 11th Bombardment Group for the U.S. Army, was declared missing in the Pacific Ocean.
“I remember hearing about Leo when I was 10 years old,” Tanner said. “I always remembered, always wanted to find out (more about him).”
He never got around to it until he was an adult, and inspiration came through genealogy work.
“I’d been working with family trees for five years and was working on the Eminger side,” Tanner said. “I kept thinking, ‘How did (Leo) die?’”
His quest to find out more has resulted in a pair of black binders, each about 4 inches thick with an assortment of Tanner’s research along with photos, newspaper and magazine clippings relating to either Eminger, World War II, or the B-17s that Eminger navigated.
Another piece will be added to Eminger’s memory at 2 p.m. Friday — that coincides with National POW/MIA Recognition Day, when Tanner and other family members have a small ceremony at Floyd Cemetery. Floyd is the closest community to Upton, a town between Floyd and Elida where Eminger’s family homesteaded, and Eminger attended Floyd High School.
According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Web site, nearly 78,000 Americans are missing as a result of World War II. Eminger is one of them, as part of a nine-member crew aboard a B-17 bomber.
Eminger was first stationed at Albuquerque Army Air Field in 1941.
After the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Eminger and others were moved to Hawaii, where he became part of the 11th Bombardment Group.
In mid-July of 1942, the crews moved to the Solomon Islands. Until November 30, 1942, the 11th Bombardment Group attacked Japanese air units in an attempt to gain a stronger foothold in the Solomon Islands.
The Army’s official report, acquired from a 1996 article in the Australia-based Sportdiving Magazine, reads:
“Loss of B17E, Serial No. 21-2420, of 42nd Bombardment Squadron:
On Sept. 24, 1942, this B-17E named Bessie Jap Basher was attacked by Japanese Zeros on a mission over the Shortland Islands. It was severely damaged and on the way back to Guadalcanal crashed in water about 100 yards off Doma Cove. Evidently, the Japanese fighters pursued it to the point where it crashed.”
Lt. Charles E. Norton, the plane’s captain, was found by enemy troops and died at Japanese Battalion Headquarters, according to records. In January 1944, a search crew found the skeletal remains of Sgt. Bruce W. Norton, a gunner on the plane. The other seven members, including Eminger, are still missing.
Eminger’s parents received a telegram on Oct. 2, 1942, that their youngest son and 11th child was missing in action. At the time of his disappearance, Eminger held the rank of first lieutenant.
Eminger was awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart, as reported in a May 1943 Portales News-Tribune article.
More than 60 years later, Tanner started working on piecing together the story of his great uncle. His binders are filled with various articles from old issues of Portales newspapers, missing crew reports, letters from the Army and the Air Force and various military-themed pages printed off of Internet sites.
Tanner’s work is the work of many people, as evidenced by a binder that contains numerous phone numbers for libraries across the country and items donated by local residents.
The name of Eminger, and other Roosevelt County soldiers killed in action, are immortalized at the Memorial Building in Portales. Tanner was able to acquire a program from the original building’s dedication in 1956 from Portales historian Joe Blair.
“I get lots of calls from lots of different people about various things,” Blair said. “I had some information he wanted, so I sent it to him.”
A copy of the program is alongside photos of the building and a newspaper article first announcing the building’s creation, with contact information for Blair as a reference.
Blair is one of about 50 people Tanner said has helped him along the way. He’s also received help from the local VFW post in the form of a POW/MIA flag, and he said he was expecting another flag from the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the House’s Veteran’s Affairs Committee.
Not everything has come so easily in research. Tanner admits he knows little about Eminger outside of his military service, and he doubts he’ll ever find out much more — most who knew him died long before he started the research and Tanner said he has been unsuccessful tracking down a yearbook from Floyd High School, where Eminger attended.
For other things, Tanner is still researching. He still aims to find a picture of Eminger aboard the B-17 with his crew. He’s contacted the family of Norton and is working on tracking family members of the other seven crew members.