After 70 Years, “Uncle Mike” is Reunited with his Family

by J-Mirabelli

Lt. Mike Zanger with the Corsair he was flying before his ill fated accident during World War II.

Marcy Hanigan delights in sharing pictures of her mother and uncle. One rare and cherished photo shows Hanigan’s mother, Grace, draping a protective arm over her younger brother Mike. Grace rarely spoke about her little brother.

Lt. Mike Zanger was a Marine, a pilot in World War II who died as a prisoner of war under the Japanese. His death left a hole in her mother’s heart, and in many ways a hole in her life. When Grace Hanigan died in 2009 at the age of 92, Marcy and her sisters Andrea and Susan decided to piece together their family’s Polish-immigrant history on their own. Their searching and curiosity eventually led them to forensic historian, Henry Sakaida, who had been studying Zanger since 1981.

For nearly thirty years Sakaida had undergone the patient task of requesting documents from the government and the military. He had poured over files and papers and interviewed Japanese pilots who had seen Zanger in captivity. Sakaida discovered that in Dec. 1944 Zanger was flying a mission over New Guinea in his Corsair, when he collided with his wingman and sustained major damage to his plane. Zanger’s plane started to spin; he bailed out, parachuting into the jungles of Rabaul. Sakaida believes he was captured by a Japanese navy patrol boat and suffered in captivity for six months.

Japanese military reports noted that Zanger was shot trying to escape captivity. When the US Army recovered Zanger’s body for reinterment in the US, their own forensic study determined that he had lots of fractures and broken bones but no gunshot wounds.

Twice, Sakaida, determined to share the truth with Zanger’s family, left notes where the pilot was buried at a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.

There was no contact from any family member until years later when Marcy Hanigan and her sisters found Sakaida. The persistent historian who had been so diligent said he was “flabbergasted” that after all these years of trying to find them, they found him!

Sakaida suggested the group take a trip to Rabaul, New Guinea, to search for the plane. The sisters jumped at the idea and plans were made for the trip.

Both Sakaida and Hanigan say the trip would have been impossible without the knowledge and expertise of Justin Taylan. He is the founder of Pacific Wrecks, a non-profit website dedicated to finding and preserving fighter planes from World War II. Taylan had coordinates for where the plane went down, and they found it buried in years of mud and mosquitos.

With the help of local villagers, they were able to clear the brush from the area so that what remained of the plane could be retrieved. Marcy Hanigan described the villagers as some of the kindest and most humane people she has ever met.

Pieces of the wreckage were cleaned and laid out on the ground. In order to confirm that this was the wreck of Mike Zanger’s plane, the group scoured each piece of the wreck in search of an identifying mark. They were looking for a Goodyear stamp about the size of a dime. Lt. Zanger’s Corsair plane was one of the few made by Goodyear. Most were made by Vought. They drew the logo so that the villagers would know what to look for.

Hanigan said what happened next is a moment she and her sisters will never forget: “The documents said our uncle’s plane had crashed at 2:30 in the afternoon and at 2:30 in the afternoon on the dot we found the identifying mark. It was really magical.”

The sisters wept at the sight of the logo. They were in the presence of their uncle’s plane; they were touching the pieces he touched.

Despite having never met their Uncle Mike, Marcy, Andrea and Susan now feel a real connection with him, and standing there over the wreckage was a way to honor his memory and to celebrate the life of their uncle.

In many ways, this journey was for their mother. “I think she would have been moved to tears over this,” Hanigan said. “It would have meant so much to her. She would have been real proud of us. I know that.”

Read more:

Neices’ search for Their Uncle’s WWII Plane Wreckage

Pacific Wrecks

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