One BU Professor Helps Another Bury a War-Hero Relative, 75 Years Later
One BU Professor Helps Another Bury a War-Hero Relative, 75 Years Later
MED anthropologist found a Questrom faculty member’s World War II airman relative
Two BU professors, separated by disciplines and total strangers to each other, became linked this year by a twist of chance and a long-dead war hero.
For 75 years, the family of Timothy Simcoe, a Questrom School of Business professor of strategy and innovation, was denied closure over the death of Simcoe’s mother’s cousin, Lieutenant William McGowan. McGowan was shot down on D-Day, June 6, 1944, as he led fighter planes on a strafing and bombing attack south of the Normandy landing beaches over the town of Moon-Sur-Elle in France. A French teenager witnessed the crash and was able to identify the site, but McGowan’s remains were never found.
Until 2018, that is, when Sean Tallman, a School of Medicine (anatomy and neurobiology) and College of Arts & Sciences (anthropology and archaeology) assistant professor, found the remains, which were later identified by US Department of Defense lab personnel using DNA and other technology. Tallman excavated the remains for the DOD, where he had been a forensic anthropologist before joining the BU faculty. Then, earlier this year, Lieutenant McGowan’s nephew, Paul Stouffer, aware of Tallman’s involvement, tipped his Questrom relative Simcoe that a BU colleague had found McGowan.
In July, Simcoe and his family will travel to Normandy to inter McGowan in the US cemetery there, after years of delay forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. “He may be among the very last Americans to be interred there,” Simcoe says. He and Tallman—who likely won’t be able to make the trip—reflect in a joint interview on what the identification means to each of them.
With Timothy Simcoe and Sean Tallman
BU Today: Professor Tallman, how did you find Lieutenant McGowan’s remains?
Tallman: [At] the Department of Defense, I did this full-time. Forensic anthropologists specialize in human skeletal biology and forensic anthropology. Our goals are to recover, document, and identify individuals from skeletal remains. Once I started at BU, [DOD] expanded the effort to recover US service members and took people from outside organizations and universities [who] could do the work. In 2018, they had a mission to France. I was assigned to Lieutenant McGowan’s case.
When the crash happened in 1944, the Army interviewed locals and assumed that everything was burned up and there was nothing there. They got one of his dog tags. They checked the box and said he was accounted for. Years later, they’re looking at some old cases that were prematurely closed and realizing there is a high probability of getting remains from this site.
In 2010, they sent out an investigation team. There was a crash crater. They found stuff from the plane, enough to suggest that there [were remains] to recover. With the government and how long it takes for things to happen, it wasn’t excavated until 2018.
When we went, it was a cornfield. That information was not relayed to us. There’s seven-feet-tall corn, so you can’t see anything. We had the GPS coordinates from the original team, so we wove our way into the center of the corn. Along the way, you’re seeing glass, metal, bits of wire, even 50-caliber casings, so this is obviously the site. We got the landowner to clear the corn with a harvester. We started doing test pits—shovel holes in the ground to see what’s underneath. We could narrow down [that] there’s way more metal in this part of the site, so let’s start digging here. We lucked out and right away found human remains, which is pretty remarkable for the first day digging.
BU Today: Professor Simcoe, what had you known about Lieutenant McGowan from your family?
Simcoe: Not a lot. There was some family lore, someone on my mother’s side who was a pilot and who had been killed. [Before] my mom recently passed away, she and my family were reaching out to relatives, and the story of this cousin became more clear. My mom’s brother was his college roommate at the University of Missouri.
BU Today: How heavily did the loss of William McGowan and the loss of any trace of him weigh on your family?
Simcoe: I found out about this through Paul Stouffer. On a few occasions, Paul’s mom [McGowan’s sister] went to France and visited the location. There’s a photo of a propeller sticking out of the ground. They thought that this location, in particular the propeller, was kind of his cemetery—that’s where her brother was. And that was a thing in the family. William McGowan was named after someone who died fighting in World War I and whose remains are still in France.
Part of what led to Sean’s pursuing the case is that the Stouffers saw, on the wall at Normandy, the names of the missing. [McGowan’s sister] said, no, he’s not missing, we know he’s in the field where the propeller is. But the DOD records had him as missing. So they wrote to a congressman and said, he’s not missing. That led to government actions that said it could be worth reopening the site.
BU Today: At what point, Professor Tallman, did you learn you had found the remains of a relative of a fellow BU professor?
Tallman: It was after I came back from that site that Paul Stouffer reached out to me. He found my name somehow. It wasn’t until recently that Tim reached out to me and said, hey, I think you recovered a distant family member in France. I didn’t know Tim until a couple months ago. [I’d] never had anything like that happen.
Simcoe: Paul said [to me], the person who led the dig is a professor at BU. This winter, we met up for lunch at the faculty club with my dad.
Tallman: I did visit, in Normandy, the wall at the cemetery. Now, his name will have a star by it, indicating that he’s been identified.
Simcoe: There are people in this town where the plane crashed who have been instrumental in helping with this. Our family is going to hold a celebration for the people. They put up a plaque in their town commemorating the crash.
BU Today: We observed Memorial Day last week. What was that day like, given the identification of Lieutenant McGowan?
Simcoe: I have found myself this year thinking forward to the trip to France, and with Memorial Day weekend, thinking [that] someone who is a close relative made the ultimate sacrifice in that time. There is a sense of pride that goes along with that. It’s a crazy time; we’re emerging from a pandemic that had postponed this trip, like so many things were postponed.
I have a daughter who’s graduating high school and about to leave home, and my mother passed away this winter. My mom had dementia; by the time this [identification of the remains] was becoming clear, she had lost the ability to speak. I think she would have been thrilled that this brought our family closer to hers.
BU Today: Professor Tallman, how many war dead remain unidentified?
Tallman: For World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, there are over 80,000 missing US service members. Roughly half are probably unrecoverable; they could be deep-water losses, they could be gone due to natural decomposition. The government is dedicated to this. There are probably over 90 full-time anthropologists doing this work, augmented with folks like me. The technology is getting better. DNA is the main way in which individuals are identified. We need to have a comparative DNA sample from living family members and DNA extracted from the remains.
BU Today: Do you two now regularly do lunches at the faculty club or socialize?
Tallman: Too soon to tell. But it’s amazing. As soon as I finished lunch [with Simcoe], I texted a colleague who reviewed my report—“I just had lunch with a faculty member of somebody I recovered in France. We both teach at BU.” She’s like, “What?”
Simcoe: Amy Brodeur’s husband is one of my best friends [Brodeur is a BU colleague of Tallman’s]. As soon as we finished lunch, I emailed her—“I met Sean Tallman. Turns out he recovered my distant relative in France.” She was like, “Huh?”
Way to go, Dr. Tallman!!!
Sounds like a book idea….
Tim is a cousin. Our Grandfather, Martin McGowan Sr, was Bill’s uncle. If there is a book, it would be Paul’s to write. His mother, Mary Jo, and aunt Pat carried the cross of Bill’s case for half a century. As a template, I gave Paul a copy of “The Patch and the Stream Where the American Fell” by Ed Sykes. It’s about his similar struggle to recover the remains of Lt Dave Dinan in Laos from the Viet Nam conflict. Dave was an MIT fraternity brother who we laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery in April 2018. I sent my DNA sample to the DPAA that Memorial Day, and with wife Pat, will also be there at the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach.