PLANT CITY — Veterans Day will have a special meaning this year for the family of a World War II airman who survived a crash on a training mission near Lakeland in 1942.
A dog tag that William Bonczewski was wearing that day was recently returned to his family - seven decades after a Plant City teenager found it while hunting rattlesnakes.
“We are so grateful to have it,” said Bonczewski’s son, Pete. “It’s created quite the buzz in the family. Veterans Day is certainly more dear to us this year.”
No one knows how one of Bonczewski’s dog tags ended up near English Creek after his B-24 clipped a tree on takeoff at Lakeland Army Airfield. He and a fellow gunner were the only survivors from the crash near the bomber and fighter training base.
Charles McDonald, who was 14 at the time, said he found the dog tag in 1943 when he was searching for rattlesnakes near the creek. He wrote a letter to the address for Bonczewski that was on the dog tag but never got a response.
McDonald threw the dog tag in a box and it was largely forgotten.
But his summer, the now-84-year-old decided it was time to try to solve the mystery. He asked for help from his computer-savvy granddaughter, Jessica McDonald, who was visiting from England.
“He just pulled the dog tag out of a box one day and said, ‘I bet you can’t find this man’s family.’ I love a challenge and I told him I’d do it in a day. It actually took a few hours and I called his family in Ohio,” said McDonald, the 1998 Florida Strawberry Festival queen who works for a tourism agency in London.
Through Internet searches, she learned that William Bonczewski didn’t die in the crash as her grandfather had always presumed. He was seriously injured but recovered in time to serve in the Army Air Corps in North Africa and Italy.
Bonczewski, the son of Polish immigrants, later served in the Air Force Reserve and worked as a coal miner in Ohio before he retired. The father of three died in 1995.
Pete Bonczewski, 66, said his dad occasionally talked about the training mission crash but didn’t mention that he’d lost a dog tag in it. “So it was quite a shock when we got the call,” he said.
The family is making plans to put together a display that will include Bonczewski’s service photo and the dog tag returned by McDonald.
“It’s something that we’ll always treasure,” Pete Bonczewski said. “It means the world to us.”