MARCUS, Iowa | Nancy Hier came home from school one day, Feb. 24, 1945, her sophomore year. Her oldest brother, John Peter Heline, was at the farmhouse east of Marcus, as were their parents, Oscar and Polly Heline, their pastor, and several friends and relatives.
"I walked up the lane and was told, 'You need to go to the house,'" she recalled.
In February 1945 you feared the worst. Nancy's other brother, Lt. Carl Wilfred Heline, served as a B-26 bomber pilot fighting Nazi Germany in the skies of Europe in World War II.
And he was missing in action.
"Carl was a typical farm boy," Nancy said. "He drove a Model A to school and it was his great delight to make it backfire."
Carl didn't fret about getting to high school on time. Nancy said he often sauntered in mere seconds before the 9 a.m. opening bell. He tended to chores at home and traveled far from home to study at the University of Arizona, where he took up flying. And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he joined millions of other young men in joining the military. He was 20 at the time.
On Valentine's Day in 1945, Carl Heline's plane was the first of eight in his group shot down while conducting a dangerous single-file bombing run at Engers Germany.
The family received a letter from Gen. Anderson of the 9th Air Force Headquarters 10 days later. They learned scant little about Carl's fate or whereabouts for the next 11 months. Nancy said her parents implored her to keep busy, as an occupied mind might not allow her to consider the worst fate for his brother.
Sadly, that's what he suffered not long after being shot down.
A history stitched together using military documents and the tireless legwork of Heline's best military buddy, Calvin Kelley, detail how Heline, co-pilot on that mission, his fourth, bailed out of his burning plane at 7,000 feet, as the left engine sustained a direct hit from anti-aircraft flak. On this fateful run, 24 U.S. fighters were killed out of 43 men downed. Nineteen were captured.
A German civilian took Heline prisoner, then turned him over to a German SS commander who, along with his driver, happened by on their way to town for bread. The SS commander had his driver proceed a short distance before stopping the car. The SS commander marched Heline into the woods, made him kneel, then shot him in the back of the head. Heline was 23 years old.
The war in Europe ended three months later, a fact that complicated search efforts. Oscar Heline implored generals, senators and others to find the truth regarding his son. It took until Jan. 23, 1946 to receive a notice of death from the U.S. Army that arrived by telegram.
Kelley, who was relentless in his pursuit, later learned his pal had been buried in a church cemetery in Rengsdorf, Germany. In May 1946, Heline's body was moved to its final resting place, joining 20,000 other American GIs buried at Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten, Holland. (Kelley and his wife named their first-born son, Carl.)
"Now, there are only 8,300 or so there as upwards of 11,000 have been repatriated," said Matthew Botkin, of Marcus, a nephew of Carl Heline and of Nancy Hier.
Oscar and Polly Heline opted to let their son remain entombed in the cemetery in Holland, which was closed to the public until 1960. The family's first visit occurred in 1949. Nancy was 19.
"We woke up early that morning," she said, recalling how an exception for their visit was made for her family. "The day was gray, cold and damp. I remember there being roses."
Their mother, Polly, wrote in her diary, describing the events of visiting Carl's grave, a simple white wooden cross. "Heartbreaking," she wrote.
Remarkably, the people in and around Margraten, Holland, immediately began adopting and caring for graves of U.S. servicemen buried there. "This is the only military cemetery in Europe where citizens spontaneously adopt graves out of their gratefulness for what the U.S. did to liberate them," said Botkin, who visited his uncle's grave site in 1982, a site now marked with a cross of white marble. "Even today, there is a waiting list."
Carl Heline's grave has been cared for by local families for decades. The specific families through the years aren't known by his relatives at Marcus. Trudy Beckers, whose parents' village was liberated by U.S. forces in 1944 began caring for Carl's grave six months ago. At that time, she reached out to Marcus City Hall and the Marcus Chamber of Commerce to see if any relatives of Carl Heline remained around the Cherokee County community. The chamber soon connected Beckers via email with Botkin and his aunt, Nancy, who wanted to meet Beckers.
Next week, Hier and Botkin and six other family members will make the trip to Holland to meet and thank Beckers for decorating Carl's grave on Memorial Day, Christmas and Carl's birthday. The family will attend a Memorial Day observance at the cemetery on May 28, the day before the actual holiday. It has been 68 years since Hier has seen her brother's grave site. Hier, who celebrated her 87th birthday on Saturday, realizes this may likely be her last visit.
Additionally, the family will visit the church in Germany where Carl was initially buried, intent on expressing their gratitude for the human decency and Christian charity the pastor showed a young pilot 72 years ago.
Sitting at the dining room table on the family farm east of Marcus, Nancy Hier examines letters, Carl's military portraits and the devastating telegram her family received, informing them on that February day in 1945 that one of their own was MIA, somewhere in Europe. She slides across the table a bracelet and a pin, gifts her older brother left her when he left to join the fight against the Nazis and their mad dictator.
"It was customary to wear the emblem of a brother who was in the war," Nancy said. "I wore his Army Air Corps pin and, after his commission, he gave me a bracelet showing his wings."
Young Nancy never took them off during World War II, and she wore both for years after Carl's death. She'll have them with her this Memorial Day, carrying physical connections to an older brother who gave his life to save her world and a free world as war raged in February 1945.