Bill McGowan was a bright, brash young American pilot on June 6, 1944, when he flew his fighter-bomber over the English Channel in the D-Day invasion of France.

McGowan, 23 years old, a newlywed with a few months of pilot training under his belt, crashed that day on his third mission against the entrenched German army.

He was alone inside a P-47 Thunderbolt, a turbocharged prop plane that carried a single pilot, two 500-pound bombs and four 50-caliber machine guns on each wing.

Witnesses in the Normandy village of Moon sur Elle years later would tell the McGowan family that the plane was aflame, hit by German antiaircraft flak, and appeared to nose into a farmer’s field to avoid hitting the village. There was a huge explosion and the plane burned for more than a day.

A farmer found the pilot’s dog tags, but his body was never recovered.

Now 75 years after D-Day, the remains of Army Air Corps Lt. William J. “Bill” McGowan have been positively identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) using DNA evidence.

“May 16 I got the call, they confirmed the remains,” said Paul Stouffer, McGowan’s nephew, who works as executive director of ranch operations for the Crazy Mountain Ranch guest ranch in Shields Valley. “That was really exciting.

“His wife never heard, my grandparents never heard, my mother never heard,” Stouffer said. “It’s kind of neat to know it’s final.”

The McGowan family wants to keep his story alive, and so do the villagers of Moon sur Elle. Shortly after the war they placed a plaque with his name on an obelisk in the village center.

In 2011 the village erected a memorial stone to honor McGowan in a park next to the farmer’s field. They planted rose bushes, put up French and American flags and on a boom box played the French national anthem and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

“The entire town came out,” Stouffer said. “It was an amazing ceremony.”

A plaque on the granite stone reads, “Lest We Forget.” Below McGowan’s name are words requested by Stouffer’s late mother, Mary Jo McGowan Stouffer, who was 12 when her only brother was killed: “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”

A village gentleman in his 80s gave Stouffer pieces of the plane he had collected, along with a handwritten note: “We will never forget that the Americans came to liberate us.”

Stouffer met Agnes de Puthod, who was 11 when she witnessed the plane crash and whose family worked for the French Resistance. From the villagers, Stouffer learned of their hardships under German occupation, when soldiers took over their houses, food was scarce, the French lost their liberty and lived in fear of bombers.

The French people, he said, “opened their homes, opened their hearts when we were there.”

Before the war, Bill McGowan had been heading for a career in journalism. His dad, Joseph, was editor and publisher of the Swift County Monitor in Benson, Minnesota. Young Bill was an energetic, fun guy who loved hunting and skiing and got in enough trouble that he was sent off to military school. He earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and went to work for United Press in Madison, Wisconsin.

When the war broke out, he wanted to be a fighter pilot.

“He thought he was invincible,” Stouffer said. McGowan married his girl, Suzanne “Suki” Schaefer, and two months later shipped out on the Queen Mary.

At 5:45 a.m., on D-Day, McGowan left an English airfield and flew over thousands of ships carrying invading Allied troops, over the landing at Utah Beach and miles into the Normandy countryside.

His assignment was to take out train stations and truck convoys. He flew back to England, refueled and headed back to France at 10:45 a.m., passing over Omaha Beach to strafe and bomb German lines. The German army had known an Allied invasion was coming but didn’t know where or when. D-Day had been a surprise.

McGowan led a squad of six planes on his third and last mission. They left England at 3:30 p.m., and flew over Omaha Beach toward the Lison railroad station. The Germans were ready for them. His plane was hit and crashed. His squad circled overhead, witnessed the burning wreckage and flew back to England.

Two weeks later, Suki received a War Department telegram saying that her husband was missing in action on D-Day. Bill’s mother, Mary, held out hope that he had parachuted to safety and was hiding in a farmer’s hayloft.

One year and a day after McGowan’s disappearance, the War Department sent the family a presumed finding of death. The headline in his dad’s newspaper read, “Benson Fighter Pilot, Downed by Ack Ack on D-Day.”

Both McGowan’s sisters went on to careers as journalists. After the war in 1948, sister Pat visited Normandy and bicycled to the village where the plane's propeller had been left in the farmer’s field to mark the crash site. In 1953, McGowan’s parents visited the field in Moon sur Elle and saw their son’s name on the village monument to its war dead.

In 2009 DPAA asked the family for DNA samples and McGowan’s sister Mary Jo gave a cheek swab. In 2011 the agency met with the family about doing forensic anthropology.

Two years ago a Frenchman emailed Stouffer to say the field had been sold to a housing developer, and this might be the last chance to find his uncle’s remains. DPAA partnered with St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which sent forensic anthropology students to Normandy in the summer of 2018. They found some remains, which were sent to the DPAA lab in Hawaii that specializes in identifying soldiers’ remains.

Now the military plans a burial ceremony with full honors for McGowan. His eight nieces and nephews agreed he should be laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery, where more than 9,000 white crosses and markers stand. The ceremony will likely take place next year, around his uncle’s 100th birthday.

“D-Day was the day that changed the course of history,” Stouffer said. “It’s important to remember the service they provided, knowing well that their chance of not coming back was high, but they still did it.”

This story was changed June 7 to correct the name of St. Mary's University, and June 11 to correct the word turbocharged.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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