Disappearance of two Madison airmen in 1953 remains a mystery

The unsolved case called "one of the most enduring mysteries of the Great Lakes" has been the subject of numerous articles and a film on Canadian television.
Disappearance of two Madison airmen in 1953 remains a mystery

A remarkable story that I encountered out of the University of Wisconsin–Madison earlier this month reminds me about one of the most vexing mysteries that I’ve encountered as a journalist.

The UW-Madison story involved a group of six students and staff members who were part of a team that unearthed a World War II U.S. fighter aircraft—and possibly remains of its pilot—in the ground under a farm field in France this summer.

The team used ground-penetrating radar and a photo taken by a British reconnaissance plane two days after the May, 1944 crash of the P-47 Thunderbolt flown by 1st Lt. Frank Fazekas.

The American plane was positively identified by matching serial numbers from uncovered aircraft machine guns. DNA testing of presumed bone material should lead to 1st Lt. Fazekas’s remains being interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

As I said, that story of the successful—if somber—search for a missing military plane takes me back to a story that begins 63 years ago this week—Nov. 23, 1953.

It involves two Air Force officers who lived in Madison and were stationed at Truax Field. On the night in question, 1st Lt. Felix “Gene” Moncla and 2nd Lt. Robert Wilson were on temporary assignment at the Kinross Air Force Base in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

What happened that night has been the subject of numerous articles and a film that aired on Canadian television in 2007. But despite all this attention, the case that a Canadian newspaper in 2006 called “one of the most enduring mysteries of the Great Lakes” has not been solved.

My interest dates to that 2006 article in the Pembroke Observer, and the fact that the two pilots were from Madison.

With information from that article and others, let me briefly summarize what happened that snowy night of Nov. 23, 1953 at the Kinross air base.

Shortly past 6 p.m., Kinross radar picked up a large, unidentified object flying in restricted space over the Soo Locks near the U.S.-Canadian border.

No U.S. or Canadian airplanes were scheduled to be in that air space.

Airmen Moncla and Wilson were sent up in an F-89 Scorpion jet to track the UFO. Radar showed them following it over Lake Superior.

Then a strange thing happened.

A story in Madison’s The Capital Times two days later put it this way: “The Truax jet was followed on the radar screen at Kinross until its image merged with that of the plane it was checking—and then it was lost.”

Despite intensive efforts by search and rescue ships and planes, Moncla, Wilson and the F-89 were never seen again.

What had occurred? A crash of the two crafts seemed unlikely, for as the Pembroke Observer story noted “the track from the F-89 had disappeared from the screen, while the unknown blip kept on its original course.”

Had the F-89 been somehow swallowed up by the UFO? Extra-terrestrial life theorists liked that one.

Across the decades, usually on an anniversary, the story resurfaced. In 1968, there were reports of parts of a military jet being found on the eastern shore of Lake Superior, but the find was never verified.

The most startling development came in 2006, not long after the publication of the lengthy Pembroke Observer article. A website claimed—it provided grainy sonar photos—to have discovered in 500 feet of water on the bottom of Lake Superior a plane they believed was the F-89.

That proved to be a hoax.

For me, the strangest part of a strange story came when—having written about the mystery—I was contacted by a Canadian named Gord Heath.

We shared a phone conversation and exchanged numerous emails in 2006-07.

Not only was Heath impressively well-versed in the Kinross incident, he said he had recently been to Madison because he wanted to see where the vanished airmen lived.

He was especially interested in Gene Moncla. In the end, he was more than interested. Heath was convinced he had memories that could only belong to Moncla, and—tying it into the F-89 UFO abduction theory—believed in some fashion he was Gene Moncla. Heath was born nine months after the F-89 disappeared.

Though I liked Heath—he seemed thoughtful and articulate—it was all a little much for me, and I didn’t write about that part of the story. Then a Canadian documentary filmmaker decided to make a movie about Health called “The Moncla Memories.” 

The filmmaker proved that Heath wasn’t Moncla—a DNA test ruled it out—but still, the mystery endures. What really happened to the Kinross F-89 and those two Madison airmen?

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.