Woman uses WWII love letters to locate missing father: ‘Daddy is coming home’

Despite the end of a war, families often experience lasting pain and separation due to the loss of their loved ones. The Soldier’s Walk Memorial Park estimates that approximately 73,000 Americans who served in World War II remain unaccounted for, leaving families without answers regarding their fate. While some have given up hope of ever knowing the truth, others continue their efforts to locate their missing relatives, even decades after the war’s end.

Sharon Estill Taylor’s father, 1st Lt. Shannon Estill, was a fighter pilot who was shot down in Germany in April 1945 when she was just 3 weeks old. Despite the war in Europe ending almost a month later, the family received no word about Shannon’s fate. His letters to his wife Mary also stopped, and he was declared dead in action even though his body was never found. The family from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, remained uncertain whether Shannon survived or was killed when his P38J Lightning was hit with anti-aircraft fire.

At age 7, Sharon promised her grandmother that she would find her father and bring him home. After more than 50 years, Sharon, who is now 77, was able to fulfill her promise. Using wartime letters from her parents, along with the help of military historians, eyewitnesses, and an excavation team, Sharon pieced together clues to locate her father’s remains. In 2006, she completed her multidecade journey to bring her father home.

Sharon was raised by a mother and grandparents who were mourning the loss of her father. She kept her father’s memory alive by setting an extra place at the table for him. In 2006, Sharon received a silver box from her grandmother that contained 450 letters exchanged between her parents, from their high school days to her father’s departure in 1944. The letters also included six months’ worth of unread letters sent by her mother after her father went missing.

During the 1990s, Sharon transcribed her parents’ letters, which revealed that her father was thrilled about her birth but worried he wouldn’t be there. Estill shared in his letters that he sought comfort from a military doctor and even provided instructions for changing cloth diapers in a letter dated March 2, 1945, as reported by National Geographic.

Using the letters, Sharon discovered that her father had one final mission before returning home. He had attached a baby bootie to his helmet for good luck. Sharon investigated further, visiting the Library of Congress and National Archives, and found that he was part of a group of 10 fighter pilots sent to attack a railway station in Germany on April 13, 1945. She also found a potential crash site in the town of Elsnig.

With plans to visit the crash site, Sharon sought assistance from Hans-Guenther Ploes, a German military aviation historian, to aid in identifying any human or aircraft remains. In 2003, Ploes made a significant discovery when he found the data plate from Estill’s downed plane, along with bone fragments in the vicinity. As a result, the predecessor of the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) dispatched a recovery team from the United States.

In 2005, the DPAA crew, accompanied by Ploes and Sharon, conducted a three-week excavation. Sharon shared that she felt her father’s presence as soon as she arrived on the property. After DNA testing confirmed that the remains belonged to her father, Sharon and her family laid his ashes to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on a sunny October day in 2006.

Sharon’s objective for the mission was to feel a closer connection to her father and his legacy while keeping her promise to her grandmother. She expressed the significance of the moment with the words, “Oh yay, the war is over. Daddy is coming home. We were disenfranchised. I realized that was hugely important.” Sharon chronicled her journey and discovery in her book, “Phantom Father: A Daughter’s Quest for Elegy.”