HHS grad killed in WW2 focus of search for information
An Arizona man with an interest in aviation history is looking for descendants of a 1940 Holton High School graduate who perished along with 16 others in a World War II-era airplane crash near Phoenix.
The purpose of Robert Kropp’s search is twofold. First, the Mesa, Ariz. resident is looking for more information on George Zellers, the HHS alumnus who was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army when he was killed in a training exercise about 20 miles northeast of Phoenix on Feb. 18, 1944, with the information Kropp gets on Zellers to be included in “a small memorial” for the airmen who died in the crash.
Secondly, Kropp, who had contacted The Holton Recorder looking for information on Zellers, has part of a sterling silver bracelet that Zellers had with him at the time of the crash — and the origin of an inscription on the back of the bracelet is proving to be a real mystery.
“My hope is to learn more about this young man,” Kropp said, “and hopefully to return this piece of aviator’s bracelet to his family if they want it.”
One surviving member of Zellers’ family has stepped forward to claim it. Greg Lawson, a third cousin of Zellers now living in Conway, S.C., said it was “a shock and a miracle” to learn of the bracelet’s existence.
Zellers, who graduated from HHS in 1940 along with his twin brother, Paul, would go on to Baker University, where he excelled in track and field before joining the Army in May of 1942, it was reported. He was a second lieutenant with the 835th Squadron of the 486th Bombardment Group at the time of the air accident that claimed his life.
According to news reports at the time, Zellers was the co-pilot of one of two B-24 Liberator bombers that were “cruising together on a training mission” when the planes suddenly “locked wings” and crashed about 20 miles northeast of Phoenix.
“Wreckage was scattered over a wide area and parts of the fuselage were still smouldering when officers arrived, indicating the planes had either exploded when they hit or burst into flames on the ground,” the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper reported on Feb. 19, 1944.
Zellers and his men were apparently headed for Topeka at the time of his death, according to Lawson, who added that according to the Army report, the plane carrying Zellers had gotten off the ground when it was clipped by the other plane, causing both to spin out of control and crash. The pilots of the second plane were determined by the Army to be at fault, he added.
Kropp said that as a high school student in the late 1970s, he had heard a little about the accident that killed Zellers and his fellow airmen via a teacher who would find “pieces of aircraft engine and metal” while on outdoor trips near Phoenix. Those pieces, the teacher told Kropp, came from a World War II-era plane crash in an area that Kropp later said is “dotted with dozens of wartime training crash sites.”
Since then, Kropp has spent “the majority of my life” with airplanes from that era as owned, operated and restored by museums and private citizens who owned planes. He also spent a lot of time looking for the site of the crash that killed Zellers, but since the Army’s wartime accident report was “vague regarding the location,” and most of it was cleaned up shortly afterward, the search seemed fruitless.
That is, until six years ago.
“In the end, I found this crash site’s location — pretty ironic, as I’d probably passed right by it numerous times in the last 30 years, as it’s literally several hundred feet from a well-traveled road in this mountain preserve area,” Kropp said. “Hundreds of people pass by it every day and have no idea 17 young men died here or have any idea such a horrific accident occurred.”
Three years ago, on the anniversary of the accident, Kropp visited the site with his wife and daughters to place a small American flag at the impact site of one of the two planes involved in the accident. Nearby, there were still “a few bits and pieces of airplane metal,” he said, but another piece of debris caught his eye.
“It was a little airman’s bracelet, very discolored from the intense fire that had consumed the wreckage, along with years of exposure under Arizona skies,” he said.
Kropp picked up the bracelet and took a closer look, finding Zellers’ name on one side and a message inscribed on the other. The message was simple — “With love, Viola” — but curious enough to spur Kropp to try and do a little extra digging for information about the airman who wore the bracelet, and the mysterious “Viola.”
It had been reported that Paul Zellers had his twin brother George’s second-lieutenant bars and silver wings packed away since World War II. After Paul’s widow’s death in the late 1990s, several artifacts from George’s military career, including dozens of letters and photos, were given to Lawson.
Those items, Lawson said, included the last letter that George wrote home, three days before he died, as well as a telegram from the U.S. Department of War to George’s mother, informing her of her son’s death.
But what of the mysterious “Viola”? A tribute to George was printed on the front page of the Monday, Feb. 28, 1944, edition of The Holton Recorder, and at the end of that tribute, in a list of family members he left behind, “Miss Viola Richter, a dear friend,” is also mentioned.
Richter was a 1944 graduate of Holton High School who, according to Lawson, is mentioned in at least a dozen letters home. As it turns out, Richter — now reportedly known as Viola Row — is still alive today and living in Topeka.
Until the bracelet is returned to a family member, Kropp said he keeps the bracelet in a safe place.
“It’s a daily reminder that life is fragile and precious, and that in aviation things can happen very quickly that have tragic consequences,” he said of the bracelet. “I have children close to the age of this young airman, and I can’t help but think how young these kids were when taking on the responsibility of training for a global conflict so many years ago.”
Zellers and the other airmen who died in the crash are also the subject of a planned memorial, and part of their story is told at two museums in the Phoenix area.
“I’d like to tell others of this young man,” Kropp said of Zellers. “He had goals and aspirations and an adult life that he wasn’t able to realize.”