Friday 19 January 2018

Mystery of Irishman who was WWII hero solved after 62 years

Eugene Smith
Eugene Smith
Pictures of Eugene Smith, Irishman who moved to US when he was 13 and died in a plane crash after serving as military investigator during WWII.
Billy Zane and Lyne Renee in ‘The Hessen Conspiracy’

Sam Griffin

The 62-year mystery of an Irishman whose investigations during World War II helped return millions in stolen art and diamonds has finally been solved.

Eugene Smith, who was born in Lavey, Co Cavan, in 1913 but emigrated to the US as a child, disappeared after his military plane crashed into a glacier in Alaska in 1952.

For decades his family, both in America and in Cavan, suspected he had died in the crash, but were never able to recover his body or give Eugene a proper burial.

Searches of the area in the intervening years have been restricted due to the harsh landscape and it seemed the C-124 military aircraft, carrying 52 passengers, had been lost forever.

But now, because the glacier has receded, the US military has been able to search the site and confirm that Eugene died in the crash.

"They knew the general area where it had gone but because it was a glacier that the plane had crashed into, it wasn't possible to carry out any kind of proper search," explained Amy Kiernan, whose grandfather was Eugene's first cousin.

Despite not knowing him, Amy says Eugene's legacy had lived on through her grandfather's stories who remembered him before he left Ireland and had waited for years for his cousin's remains to be found.

"Granddad was always so proud of his cousin in America and he remembered when he first heard the plane had crashed.


"He had kept in touch with the family in the US the following years but passed away without ever finding out what happened to his cousin," said Ms Kiernan, who lives in Lavey.

Eugene settled with his family in Wilmington, Delaware and got US citizenship. He joined the National Guard before he went on active duty with the army.

In 1942 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the military police, investigating crimes committed during World War II. He quickly moved up the ranks becoming a lead investigator within the force. His crowning glory came in 1946 when he brought court martial proceedings against three US officers who had stolen more than $30m worth of jewels and gold belonging to one of the royal families of Germany, the Hesse family.

The robbery was known as the Hesse jewel heist and a Hollywood film based on it was made in 2009 starring Billy Zane.

The air disaster struck soon after he was named the director of the office of special investigation, based in Alaska.

The crash site remained untouched until 2012, when the US military was finally able to access the site due to the receding glacier.

DNA extracted from existing family members matched positively with a skull discovered in the plane. Eugene had been found.

"The family always thought the plane had crashed and that he was there," says Brian Gorman, nephew of Eugene, who lives in Wilmington today.

A burial ceremony will take place at the end of the month in Wilmington and Amy, and her sister Louise will attend as representatives of Eugene's Irish ancestry.

"It's great that he dedicated his career to solving mysteries and now finally this last mystery is solved," Amy added.

Irish Independent

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