77 years after his death in WWII, a Minnesota soldier to be buried in Washington
“Yankee Gal” was one of 21 bombers lost during the mission. German forces recovered Nando Cavalieri's body and ID tags and buried him in Doberitz, Germany, a small town outside Berlin, about four days later.
DULUTH -- On February 3, 1945, Nando Cavalieri took off on a perilous mission.
A 24-year-old bombardier in the U.S. Army, he was born in Eveleth, on Minnesota’s Iron Range. That night his commanding officer assigned him to lead a squadron of 1,000 B17 Flying Fortress bombers over Berlin. His plane was named “Yankee Gal.”
Just 10 seconds after he dropped the bomber’s payload, anti-aircraft fire cut his “Yankee Gal” in half.
"There were no parachutes seen coming out,” said his nephew, Art Cavalieri. “There were no survivors."
Ever since Cavalieri was declared missing in action, his family has searched for him: first his parents, then his uncle, then his nephew.
And now, improbably, more than 77 years after being killed in action, Cavalieri’s remains have been positively identified through advances in modern science and the determination of the military and his family. After years of effort, his nephew and a handful of other relatives will see Nando finally laid to rest in Washington's Arlington National Cemetery. The service is scheduled for Thursday, May 5.
“I think I'm probably going to cry a little,” said Art Cavalieri. “Because I thought to myself when he died, nobody shed a tear. Because nobody knew."
“Yankee Gal” was one of 21 bombers lost during the mission. German forces recovered Cavalieri's body and ID tags and buried him in Doberitz, Germany, a small town outside Berlin, about four days later.
After the war, the American Graves Registration Command recovered all the American remains buried after that mission. But they were unable to identify Cavalieri, or seven other soldiers. They were declared "non-recoverable" in 1951, and buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery in Belgium.
But Nando's parents — Art Cavalieri’s grandparents — never forgot about their son, Art said.
"When my grandmother was alive, she always wore his wings, his Bombardier wings. And she would always say, ‘I wonder where Nando is? I wonder about Nando.’"
She even had an inscription carved into her gravestone that reads “In memory of Captain Nando Cavalieri.”
For years, with the help of their son — Art's father — they badgered the Army for more information about Nando's death. When Art's father died in 1991, he took up the cause.
"I have a lot of respect for him for all those years what he was doing,” said Art’s wife Bozena Cavalieri. “Because he regularly called the Army and asked for those classified papers. He was fighting, saying… you have to un-classify it and send it to me. I have a right to know!"
There are roughly 81,600 missing service members, like Cavalieri, killed overseas during wars throughout U.S. history. Slightly fewer than half of them — about 38,000 — are considered "recoverable." The rest are considered "non-recoverable" for various reasons, primarily because they were lost in deep water in the ocean.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is in charge of finding them, from more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way back to World War II. The agency’s work has slowed some during the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2019, the agency located more than 200 bodies.
"As service members, we make a promise to never leave a fallen comrade,” said Army Sergeant First Class Sean Everette, who acts as an agency representative. “And so we really have a moral imperative to fulfill that promise not just to the service member, but to the family and to the nation that we won't leave our people behind."
In 2018, some of the roughly 700 researchers, historians and others who work for the agency worldwide identified a set of remains in Belgium they thought could be Cavalieri's, after piecing together records from the military, European cemeteries and elsewhere.
The exhumed remains were shipped to an Air Force base in Nebraska for more examination.
Different lines of evidence are used to identify bodies, including skeletal analysis — what’s known as forensic anthropology— comparing teeth to old dental records, and physical evidence, such as objects that may be found with the body.
But in recent years DNA has played a larger role in identifying more and more remains. "Just because that helps us to reinforce and solidify the other lines of evidence that we use,” Everette said.
Art Cavalieri said it was his DNA — and DNA from another relative— that allowed his uncle to be positively identified. Bozena Cavalieri said that’s because the body didn't have a face, so researchers couldn't use his teeth to help identify him.
When Art Cavalieri heard the news for the first time, he said, "I thought to myself, I hope my grandmother, my grandfather and my father are looking down from heaven and saying thank you for pursuing this for so long. So after 27 years, I thought to myself, boy, I finally accomplished something good in my life."
Art Cavalieri is 80 now, and not in good health. He has Parkinson's disease and uses a wheelchair after a severe complication from an infection.
But there’s no way he's missing the funeral, he said. He'll crawl there if he has to.
”I'm going to be very proud. I'm very proud to be an American. I'm very proud that he served his country. And he died a hero.”