There was a thick layer of ground haze near Bologna, Italy, on the morning of April 21, 1945.

Still, Loren Hintz could see the green fields that resembled his childhood home in Iowa. The war in Europe was coming to a close, and there were more pilots than missions. Many chose to stay back and fly only when needed. Hintz, though, was eager to get home. The more missions he completed, the sooner the 26-year-old could return home to his year-old daughter, Gretchen, and wife, Gert, who was eight months pregnant.

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But this one-hour “wheels up, wheels down” mission would be his last.

On that hazy morning, Hintz headed out on his 66th mission of World War II. It was a 12-aircraft formation caring incendiary bombs with an objective to strike German ground troops outside of Bologna. Hintz was positioned toward the back of the formation - and that meant that by the time Hintz was descending to drop a bomb, the element of surprise was gone. The German troops had started shooting back, and they focused in on Hintz’s plane. The P-47D Thunderbolt Razorback was hit and caught fire, and in just 10 seconds the plane crashed into the same green fields Hintz had admired less than an hour before.

1st Lt. Loren E. Hintz of Charles City, Iowa, had made the ultimate sacrifice.

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Hans Wronka of Duluth is on a quest; he is “finding Loren.”

Wronka, 43, is Hintz’s grandson, and has spent the past 12 years working with his family, Aircorps Aviation of Bemidji and a team of passionate Italian volunteers to learn more about his grandfather and where he died.

Through the research, Wronka and his friends have amassed a trove of photographs and documents, and they’ve conducted countless interviews with witnesses to the crash as well as Hintz’s comrades during the war.

And now, Wronka and Aircorps Aviation are using this mass of media to tell Hintz’s story to the world. Starting today at findingloren.com and on social media, they are sharing all they’ve found, using the the hashtag #FindingLoren.

This sharing of Loren’s story also coincides with the excavation of his plane. On July 23, Wronka and more than 200 volunteers will travel to a site just outside the village of Bagnarola, Italy, where they believe Hintz’s plane went down.

Chance conversation

The “Finding Loren” project started on a dark, cold night in 2000. Wronka, who was living in Alaska at the time, decided to do an internet search for the 79th Fighter Group, of which Hintz was a member.

Wronka said he had been interested in World War II history and aviation for a while - but the movie “Saving Private Ryan” had come out a couple of years earlier, “so I would say there was more awareness of the grandkid generation, of what their grandparents had gone through.”

Wronka stumbled across a webpage that the 79th Fighter Group used as a message board for reunions. He decided to type a post: “Does anyone know a Loren E. Hintz? He was in the 79th Fighter Group and 86th Fighter Squadron.”

No response. As far as Wronka was concerned, the post faded into oblivion. But his search continued.

In 2005, Wronka found and purchased a copy of the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) on Hintz, which gave him more information about the day his grandfather’s plane went down.

What happened next, Wronka chalks up to destiny.

Working on a project for his new job in Montana, Wronka went out to dinner with a colleague, John Hunt.

“We got to talking about things not related to work, and we just happened to land on the topic of our interest in World War II,” Wronka said.

As the conversation continued Hunt revealed his father-in-law, Bob Johnston, had flown P-47s during World War II in Italy. Wronka then told Hunt about his grandfather. Wronka and Hunt laughed at the coincidence and wondered if there was any possibility Hintz and Johnston knew each other.

They sure did.

Hunt returned home and asked his father-in-law if he knew Loren Hintz. Not only did Johnston know Hintz, but they had trained together stateside and shipped out to Europe together. Both ended up in the 86th Fighter Squadron. They were close friends throughout the war.  

“When John Hunt sent me an email a few days later - honestly, it wasn’t so much chills but just the strangest feeling ever. It was like, ‘Wow, a connection to the past. Who would have thought?’” Wronka said.

The following Memorial Day, Johnston visited Wronka’s mother and his family at her home in Bloomington, Minn. Johnston was 23 in 1945, and also flew 66 missions during the war. Johnston and Hintz were about the same height; both had dark hair and deep dimples.

“There he was, this 5’ 7” guy, nicely dressed, wearing a sport coat and a bolo tie and just holding a nice, very simple bouquet of flowers in his hands that he offered to my mom,” Wronka said. “That, I think, was as enchanting as it was fascinating for my mom, because here was actually someone in the flesh telling us much more … about what it was like to be a P-47 pilot, and I’m sure my mom was having thoughts like, ‘This is sort of what my dad would be like if he would be alive.’ ”

Johnston recalled some of their adventures in a video interview with Wronka .

“When we got to Italy, we got a choice of where we could go. We could choose the west, which was closer to peace or the east, on the Adriatic, where more was going on. A small group of us said that we’d have more action over here (on the Adriatic) and we’d get to fly more,” Johnston said. “We all agreed to go there. Thats where the action is going to be.”

Johnston also described Hintz’s laidback personality.

“He was reserved… we never really talked about the enemy, I would say Loren was a gentle man,” Johnston said. “But even as the war was winding down, any chance he had, he was flying missions so he could get home. He was so determined to get home.”

Johnston died in February at age 94.

The first trip to Italy

Wronka’s next discovery in Hintz’s story came in spring 2012. Wronka received an email in broken English from an Italian man named Piero Fabbri. The email said that if Wronka was Loren E. Hintz’s grandson; he had some information about the crash for his family.

“Everybody has received these emails from a far-off country saying, ‘Hey, do I have a business deal for you.’ It wasn't in perfect English and so at first glance my Spidey-senses were tingling that it was a trolling thing,” Wronka said. “But it was like, all right, he's talking specifically about an individual I’m familiar with, my grandpa, and he wasn't peddling anything.”

Wronka cautiously replied to Fabbri’s email. They soon became fast friends.

“Piero just has the purest intentions. He had received a list of names of pilots who had crashed in the area during the war and so he just started Googling names and found my post from 2000,” Wronka said.

As Fabbri and Wronka continued to communicate, Wronka decided to visit Fabbri in Italy. Wronka, his wife, Reva and oldest son, Gus, boarded their first flight to Italy in July 2012.

Before the Wronkas arrived, Fabbri had done some ground work trying to find the crash site.

“What he basically did is just quietly worked through the village and asked “Were you around during the war?’ ” Wronka said. “Theresa was the first one - she had lived in the village her whole life and was a girl during the war. ‘It would be in this field right here, the Malvezzi estate,’ she said.”

The Malvezzis are a prominent family in the area. Fabbri used the woman’s relationship with the Malvezzi family to start a dialogue about the project with Marquis Malvezzi.

“As I understand it, it took some time; this was his home and they had experienced terrible things during the war,” Wronka said. “Piero explained to him that there was this American kid looking for his grandpa and then Malvezzi opened up - family is everything in Italy.”

More revelations were made during that first trip.

In the Missing Air Crew Report, Lt. Richard C. Powell gave a statement of what happened the morning of April 21, 1945.

“When we peeled off on the target, I selected one of the three houses toward the far end of the area, in order that Lt. Hintz would be able to find a target. I released my fire bombs at approximately 800 to 1,000 feet and encountered light, moderate and accurate flack,” Powell’s statement said.

While at the Malvezzi estate, Wronka and Fabbri came across a photo of a girl sitting on a pile of rubble in front of a damaged home. Sources in the village told Fabbri that the house had been rebuilt, and it still stands today. That was the house Powell had hit. It was a sign that the team was even closer to finding Hintz’s crash site. Additional interviews produced more evidence of where the plane crashed.

While in Italy, Wronka also was able to fly the path that his grandfather had flown 67 years earlier.

“That was as close to a spiritual connection I’ve had so far … We sort of fell in at the altitude in the statement Powell gave and lined up,” Wronka said. “I knew I was flying over territory that was the last stuff my grandpa saw. … It was impossible not to get a lump in my throat and a little teary-eyed. I looked over and Piero was the same way. It created a connection with my grandpa that it never occurred to me that I would have any time in my life.”

Connecting the dots

In spring 2015, Wronka received a grant from the University of Minnesota Duluth, his alma mater, to use an electro magnetometer to test the area where they thought the plane had crashed. When Fabbri and his team conducted the test, they found readings of a large metallic object several meters under the surface.

After some more evidence emerged last winter, further pinpointing the site, Fabbri went to his Italian and German archeology friends and told them about the opportunity to excavate a World War II crash site.

“As I understand it, there's a lot of these archaeologists that go on digs but they hardly ever have this much evidence that there is something there,” Wronka said. “It's just sort of creating this wave, vortex, drawing people in. The mayor of (the nearby city of) Budrio will be there and Malvezzi is saying, ‘All the parts will be brought back to my estate to be processed.’”

The dig nears

After the first trip to Europe, Wronka met Eric Trueblood of Aircorps Aviation in Bemidji at a conference in North Dakota.

Aircorps Aviation is known worldwide for the award-winning detail they bring to restoration, maintenance and rebuilding of vintage WWII aircraft, and it just so happened that Aircorps Aviation was going to be restoring a P-47D Thunderbolt Razorback, the exact type Loren Hintz flew.

“There are roughly 16 flying Thunderbolts in the world. There are more on static (non-flying) display. Our project is even rarer because it is a Razorback version and would be the only P-47D Razorback flying in the world,” said Chuck Cravins of Aircorps Aviation.  

After hearing Wronka’s story about his search to learn more about his grandfather and find the downed Razorback, Trueblood said he asked Wronka to share his story with all Aircorps employees.

Once Wronka came to speak, the staff was hooked. Sara Zimmerman, the business coordinator at Aircorps Aviation, said she was curious how she could follow the story.

“We wanted to follow what was going on in Italy, and … they told us they didn’t really have any plans (for) a website. So we said, “Here, let us help you with Twitter and it just kind of snowballed,” Zimmerman said.

Over the past few weeks, Zimmerman and Trueblood have been creating a online version of Loren Hintz’s story by scanning and uploading photos and videos, as well as letters, journal entries and even the contents of his wallet. Starting today, they will begin telling Loren’s story through social media and on their website.

They will continue to share new information every day through the excavation in Italy. Trueblood said offering to help was the natural thing for the company.

“With the complexity of our projects here we could see what he was doing wasn’t easy, and we know so many people in our world who would love to hear this story,” Trueblood said. “Through everything the family has preserved, you get to understand the person you’re trying to honor and you don’t always have that.

“He wasn't a WWII fighter ace, he wasn’t awarded a medal of honor; he’s a common man who served his country and made the ultimate sacrifice.”  

With the excavation nearing, Wronka is most excited for this unlikely group of 200 people to gather at the crash site.

“One guy who ended up on the unlucky side of the outcome of war, that single life has 71 years later, drawn all these people together from all over the world,” Wronka said. “I think when that whole group is together, everyone is just going to feel that vibe of his spirit. It's too bad this happened, but look at this coming together of humanity, after the fact.”

For more information

You can follow Loren Hintz’s story at findingloren.com, or use the hashtag #FindingLoren on social media.

On the website you will find a video interview with Hans Wronka, photos of Loren Hintz, government documents, Loren’s poems and journal entries and more. The website also will cover the excavation of the crash site in Italy in real time with pictures and video.