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'His story' - family discovers image of long-lost father

  • Published
  • By Capt. Elaine M. Larson
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
Most people have tried it at least once - "Googling" their name to see what cyberspace has on them. Most often it's just high school sports scores or obscure references to unrelated people with the same last name.

But when Richard Van Hersett tried that trick, he came across the face of a father he hadn't seen in more than 50 years, captured in a painting now hanging on the walls of the Air Education and Training Command Manpower and Personnel building here, as part of the Air Force Art Collection.

"I was surprised, I was actually shocked to see there was a picture there to begin with," said Mr. Van Hersett as he and his wife, Phyllis, looked at the painting they had been tracking for more than 2 years. "I just wanted to see what would pop up. As I was scanning through the different items, I saw 'Captain George Van Hersett,' and said, 'What's that?!'" The link brought Mr. Van Hersett to the Air Force Art Collection where he discovered the painting of his father, a B-17 navigator killed in 1955 while flying a mission over Taiwan.

"I never really knew my father," said Mr. Van Hersett, explaining that he was gone all the time. "So, I don't have very many recollections of him - I really don't. When I discovered this (painting), it was another piece of history that was in the family."

Through a series of internet searches and letters, Mr. Van Hersett was able to get a 3x4 inch transparency of the picture from the Air Force Art Program Office; however, no one in the family had ever seen the actual painting. So, during this year's annual trip to San Antonio, the Van Hersetts decided to take the time to see it in person. Realizing he would need help to enter Randolph AFB and find the painting's location, Mr. Van Hersett contacted the Headquarters AETC History Office.

The folks there were happy to help. "One of the best things about my job is making personal connections with Air Force history," said Dr. Bruce Ashcroft, an AETC staff historian, noting that many people visit the history office to reminisce about their time as aviation cadets. "The Van Hersett story was an even more important story," said Doctor Ashcroft. "Helping this man make a connection with his long-deceased father... it was amazing."

The Air Force Art Program has a long history, said Dr. Ashcroft. "The idea is to send professional artists out into the highways and byways to document the Air Force in action in a way that the written word can't." The Air Force Art Program Office then gets about 200 paintings every two years for distribution to Air Force offices throughout the world.

The painting of Captain Van Hersett, "B-17 Navigator," was created by Tran Mawicke, an artist who toured the Far East on an illustrator tour of the area with the captain's unit. According to the AFAPO website, the painting was from material acquired in October 1954 - just months before Captain Van Hersett and his crew were lost in the mountains over Taiwan (formerly called "Formosa") while flying a routine mission.

"Right now, he's taking a position of the sun so he can map out the direction of the airplane and what the airplane is going to do," said Mr. Van Hersett while explaining the portrait to friends who had accompanied them on their trip to Randolph. "At night, he'd pick out the stars and stuff like that to take a position."

Captain Van Hersett had flown in both World War II and the Korean War, and after the conflicts he was always looking for more flight time, said Mr. Van Hersett as he began the story of his father's final flight. The unit needed to carry an aircraft engine from Tokyo to Hong Kong on a last-minute flight, but they already had someone scheduled as the navigator. But then that navigator got sick, and they made a last-minute decision for Captain Van Hersett to join them.

"It was over Formosa right after the Korean War, and there were a lot of threats from China. But he jumped on the airplane to get his flight time in," said Mr. Van Hersett. During the flight there was an alert, which caused the crew to turn down all the navigation systems. However, directly between Tokyo and Hong Kong are the mountains of Formosa where the navigation systems are necessary to get around the high peaks. "They were 700 feet below the peak of the mountains." Captain Van Hersett was 38 years old.

"You never told me that!," said Mrs. Van Hersett. "I always knew he was a navigator, but I didn't know he crashed into the mountains. I always wondered that all this time." Mrs. Van Hersett's eyes filled with tears as she stepped toward the painting. "It's just so sad."

The Van Hersetts were delighted to see how active duty members were still walking past a piece of their family's history every day. "It was just a surprise and a delight to see (my father) as part of the Art Collection and part of history. It wasn't anything I would have surmised that anybody would do," said Mr. Van Hersett. "I mean, you hear the stories about the WWII bombings and the squadrons there - and you don't know what they went through. But he went through it, and he survived it. So, he had a tremendous amount of history to begin with, and I'm just finding out a little bit more about it now. It's neat to have somebody put it on a piece of wall."
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