Woman seeks information on long-lost uncle

Pieces of the aircraft are displayed.

The plane fell out of the cloud nose first. The remains that could be found were returned to their families with little ceremony and even less information. The wreckage was left among hundreds of others out in the Mojave Desert. The war went on.

Sixty years later, Marcia Shealey, of West Ashley, did a blind Internet search for an uncle she never knew. It was a whim after watching a television show about World War II aircraft crashes. She didn't expect to find anything, much less a detailed report from a California wreck chaser who had stumbled across the lost site of the B-24 bomber in which her uncle had died on a training flight.

She soon found herself holding a radio tuning knob that might well have been one of the last things touched by her radio operator uncle.

With that, Shealey set off on a five-year campaign to wrestle from reluctant military archivists some recognition for Michael Rudich, her uncle, and the other nine crew members who were lost on that flight.

In October, she and other family members will travel to Arlington National Cemetery for a memorial service that will include a military funeral.

"I did become obsessed with it. I would stay up until 2 a.m. working on the computer. I couldn't quit," Shealey said. "All those people, nobody really knew what happened to them. The government said just let it lie in the desert."

Gravestone with wings

Michael Rudich was 19 years old. A cadet at The Citadel, he dropped out of school to enlist in the Army Air Corps because he wanted to fly, knowing that otherwise he would be drafted as a foot soldier. He had grown up tending his family's store in a rough Charleston neighborhood, the kind of kid who wouldn't back down from a fight.

"Everybody loved him, he was so protective," said Pearl Rudich Hyman, his sister. He could be a sweetheart, taking his younger sister to the movies and buying her a 10-cent ring that, for all the world, was jewelry to her. More than a half-century later, her eyes light up and get a little teary talking about him.

The call came on Easter Sunday, 1944. The stunned family received the casket a few weeks later.

When they brought Rudich's remains in the house, his pet collie went outside, cried all night then disappeared, never to be seen again. Then the mementos started coming, letters Rudich wrote before he died. He sent Hyman a set of wings. He sent the late Bernice Rudich Bernstein, Shealey's mom, a handkerchief with wings that read, "Remember me."

He was buried in Beth Israel Cemetery under a gravestone with huge wings.

"He was so handsome and he was so young. You couldn't believe it happened," Hyman said. "It's something you never get over. I had dreams every night that it wasn't true."

A boxful of artifacts

Marcia Shealey is an English and research teacher at Bishop England High School, the sort of instructor who pushes her students to take their research as far as they can. She is "a bulldog, a pit bull," said Sid Shealey, her husband, in teasing admiration.

She can't really say why she pushed as far as she did for an uncle she knew only as a story. But the more she learned, the more she wanted to do.

When she tired, she was spurred on by Faye Schupbach, her sister, whose husband is retired military, and other family. They wanted to see the lost uncle honored.

Shealey collected a boxful of artifacts from the desert wreckage, files of research about the plane, the crew and their families. She learned painful details of what happened in that fateful training -- how the inexperienced pilot ran into bad weather and icing, how Rudich was beheaded in the crash.

She made contact with the other crew members' families. The mother of one of the two men whose remains weren't recovered until a few years ago was given his dog tags, excavated at the site by the military after pressure from Shealey. Once the site was excavated, the bones sorted, the military spent a few years searching out the various next-of-kin.

They promised a memorial ceremony would be held.

"I kept calling and calling and calling, trying to get them to do what they said they were going to do," she said. Finally, she received a letter saying the remains had been returned to the families and that nothing more would be done. That wasn't good enough.

"This is ridiculous," she told a military officer with whom she spoke. "I've been working on this for five years. Are you waiting for me to die?" She wrote U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham. She wrote President Barack Obama. Then earlier this year, she received notice of the Arlington ceremony, including travel expenses for family members.

A handmade ring

The Arlington honors will be reaffirming and a little excruciating. Pearl Hyman frankly concedes that it all brings back the pained emotions, even the dreams.

"It's kind of agonizing. But you get down to reality, that's how it was," she said.

The ceremony will validate the bravery of Rudich, his fellow crew members and really all the soldiers who fought, said Leon Rudich, his brother.

"Just that, that many years back, they'll remember what a horrible tragedy it was. This is something we should never forget," he said.

For 44 years, the story of what happened to Michael Rudich lay in pieces scoured over by sand in a windswept desert. The siblings are a little amazed at what Shealey has been able to uncover about their brother, the recognition for him she has been able to gain. She pressured the Army to turn over to Hyman a handmade onyx ring with the initials "MR" engraved. Hyman gave it to Shealey.

It's a keepsake for a keepsake. The family finally has -- to pass on -- the story of what happened to Michael Rudich.

"Here, something good is going to come out of something horrible," Shealey said.