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On Feb. 26, 1945, a B-25 pilot leaves a small Pacific island to attack the Japanese in the Philippines. The plane and its crew are lost in the clouds, not to be found. More than 60 years later, the airman's younger brother searches for answers as to what happened that day, reconnecting with a sister-in-law and his past.
By William R. Levesque, Times Staff Writer
Published February 26, 2008
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
It all began in a moment alone. Bill Verzi stared at two postcards he found in a trunk at his Largo home. His older brother, Lou, sent them months before he was lost in World War II.
As he stared at them, the 70-year-old Verzi asked an empty room:
"Where the hell are you, Lou?"
Over the years, brother Bill had learned almost nothing of his older brother's death: Lou piloted a B-25 that never returned from a mission against the Japanese in 1945.
Unexpectedly, the postcards stirred Verzi's need to know more.
So began an unlikely journey that took Verzi back to his childhood, to long-forgotten mementos, to yellowed history texts and old photos of faces forever young, forever smiling.
This month, it took him to a house in Hillsborough County, to a place where the past comes alive.
The last time Verzi saw his brother, Lou visited him while Bill lay sick in bed. It was 1944 in Fort Lee, N.J.
Just 7 years old, little Billy told Lou to bring him back a Japanese bomb. The older brother smiled and told him, "Be a good boy."
One day in March 1945, Bill found his mother crying and the adults staring at a telegram: Lou was missing.
In time, the Army declared Lou, then 29, dead. No bodies or wreckage were ever found.
Life continued for Bill Verzi and his family. Lou's new wife, Myrtle, joined Gold Star Wives of America, becoming an advocate for other wives who lost husbands in war.
She eventually remarried and lost touch with Lou's family.
Verzi's family moved to Florida. Bill Verzi worked in real estate, eventually joining the Pinellas Property Appraiser's Office.
On that day in 1993 when he found the postcards, Bill Verzi reached into a box and pulled out an old National Geographic that belonged to another brother. Its headline: Ghosts of the Pacific.
Inside the magazine, Verzi read the story of how a B-25 bomber, like the one his brother flew, found a watery grave at the bottom of the Pacific.
The story only fed Verzi's need to know what happened to Lou's plane. How did Lou die? Where is his plane? Was he shot down?
He told his older brother Marty, who brought out something he had never shown Bill - Lou's letters from the war.
They overflowed with details about Lou's life, his frustrations at not being promoted, his fear of bad weather.
In a Feb. 5, 1945, letter, Lou told his brother about the joy of flying at 270 mph, full throttle, kissing the tops of the palm trees.
"But I'd rather be up in the blue," Lou wrote, "where it is much safer."
Verzi was visiting the Largo library one day when he randomly pulled out a book in the World War II section.
The book was about the 13th Air Force, in which his brother served. The cover photo of a B-25 named Male Call looked oddly familiar.
At home, Verzi pulled out old photos Lou had sent back. In one, Lou stands in front of his plane. It's name: Male Call.
Verzi's heart raced. Had Lou somehow brought him to this book? What were the chances of pulling that particular book off the shelf?
Days later, Verzi pulled another book off the shelf: Morotai. It was a Pacific base the Americans used during the war.
As he read, Verzi saw that the author, pilot John Boeman, arrived at the base on Feb. 26, 1945 - the day Lou disappeared.
Verzi found a number for Boeman and got him on the first try.
Boeman hadn't known Lou. But he invited Verzi to a reunion of the 13th Air Force in Louisville just two weeks away.
There, Verzi found pilots who had flown B-25s. Verzi found someone who had reports from Lou's outfit. And he gave Verzi a mailing address to get others.
One day a key report arrived in the mail. It explained exactly how Lou was lost.
Lou was one of the pilots in a tight formation of B-25s that departed Morotai to bomb and strafe the Japanese in the Philippines.
At 9 a.m., they hit overcast skies. Visibility dropped to zero. Verzi's plane disappeared.
When the formation emerged from the clouds, Verzi was gone, lost 8 miles south of Sangihe Island, next to a speck of an atoll called Karakitang. Searchers found no wreckage, no bodies.
In 2006, Verzi paid a family visit to Australia's northern coast. He saw a monument to missing airmen. An arrow pointed to Morotai, 1,012 kilometers away.
Verzi figured his search was finished.
But in January, he read a story about the war and called a reporter on a whim.
As he explained the coincidences and the obsession, Verzi said he felt like he owed something to his big brother.
He figured Lou's widow might be dead.
"God, if Myrtle were alive, I'd fly to New Jersey tomorrow to visit her," Verzi said.
A Times researcher tried to find out if she were dead or alive. The paper quickly found an 89-year-old Myrtle living in Sun City Center just 45 minutes from Verzi's home. Could it be her?
A reporter called. Myrtle answered. Did she know a Lou Verzi?
"He was my husband," the woman said.
Early this month, Verzi nervously walked up a path to Myrtle's home with his 89-year-old sister, Kati Demas. Myrtle rushed out to meet them.
"I'm a hugger," Myrtle said.
"I remember those hugs," Verzi said.
For an hour, they caught up on old times, exchanging old pictures of Lou, reminiscing, sharing what they knew.
Verzi said he felt closer than ever to his brother. "He lives," he said, "in Myrtle."
In a year, Verzi wants to visit the Pacific again, health willing. This time, he wants to get out to an atoll near tiny Sangihe island.
He trusts fate will give him something - maybe an old-timer who saw the plane go down, maybe a piece of wreckage.
Verzi uses Google Earth to zoom in on satellite photos of the island. He looks for plane silhouettes under blue waters. In the dark, staring at the computer, he talks to his brother.
"Finding Myrtle is like finding a piece of Lou," Verzi said. "But I want to get out there. He's still there someplace. Maybe this story isn't over yet."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.
[Last modified February 25, 2008, 22:57:36]