BEDFORD, Va. -- Paul Stouffer's 20-year trek is nearing an end to a journey he began in Bozeman, Montana, and ended in Bedford, Virginia.
“First time I’ve ever been here," Stouffer said. "You can feel it. You come to Bedford, you can feel it.”
Seventeen hundred miles and a suitcase full of emotions later, the elusive bucket list item stands before him.
“It is good to finally be here," Stouffer said. "It is great to finally make it. I’ve heard so much about this place.”
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford draws tens of thousands of visitors every year. None more awestruck than Stouffer.
“Just an amazing presentation," he said. "It is really impressive what they’ve done with the water effects.”
For this historian, June 6, 1944, ranks as one of the most important dates ever. A day that changed world history and his family forever.
Paul's uncle Lt. William McGowan was killed when he was shot down. The pilot's P-47 slamming into a field behind Omaha Beach near the village of Moon sur Elle.
“The nature of the crash was so horrific that the remains could never be recovered," Stouffer said.
The Minnesota native was married and a journalist when he joined the military. He was just 23 years old.
“The witnesses remember the plane burning for more than 24 hours," Stouffer said.
Stouffer listened to stories about his late uncle when he was a boy. The tales sparking a lifelong obsession with the invasion.
“He was the symbol of the liberation," Stouffer said.
The D-Day Memorial in Bedford was a natural destination for Stouffer. The landmark honors his uncle and more than 2,000 Americans who perished that decisive day.
“It is long overdue," Stouffer said. "This is one place I’ve wanted to come to for a long time.”
John Long serves as Director of Education at the Memorial.
“We are delighted when the relative of a D-Day fatality is on-site. That is why we are here. We are their spot," Long said. “We want the McGowan family to know how much we cherish his memory as much as they do.”
This trip to Bedford means more to Stouffer ever since his phone rang nearly eight decades after the war.
“When the farmer discovered some of the remains, he buried them under the propeller before the village evacuated," Stouffer said.
A modern forensics team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency found pieces of remains at the crash site. In 2019, using DNA provided by Paul's family, Lt. McGowan was positively identified.
“I got the call three weeks before the 75th anniversary of D-Day and his plane crashing," Stouffer said.
During Stouffer's own visit to Normandy, a villager gifted him pieces of his uncle's plane. Also removed from the field the wings Lt. McGowan was wearing when he was killed.
“He wanted to fly and fly fighters. So, he was going to do everything he could to be a fighter pilot in WWII," Stouffer said.
The D-Day Memorial's Angela Lynch said Stouffer's story personalizes the distant war.
“I think what it says about Paul is that he cares about his uncle," Lynch said. “But to get to hear from a family member that said this is what it meant to my grandmother and what my mother told me it's just incredible."
With Lt. McGowan finally accounted for, Stouffer said he felt even closer with the uncle he never knew.
“It could have been 5,000 miles and I would have been here," Stouffer said. "This is a place that I’ve wanted to go to for a long time,"
His pilgrimage to Virginia is a chance to honor the legacy of his loved one lost long ago.
“It is humbling. Very humbling," Stouffer said. “He was missing in action as far as the government was concerned but we weren’t going to forget about him.”
Lt. McGowan's 366th Fighter Group was established in Richmond, Virginia in June 1943. His remains will be buried at the Normandy American Cemetery next summer. The cemetery is just a few miles from where Lt. McGowan's plane went down.
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