A Story Untold: Senior history project introduces student to late grandfather’s heroic past

On June 6, 2014, our nation remembered the 70th commemoration of D-Day and honored the few remaining veterans who experienced WWII. For one recent Mount Mercy alumnus, this year’s passing of the Omaha Beach anniversary carried with it a meaning more profound than he could have imagined.

What started as a senior project for Dr. Edy Parsons’ Seminar in Historical Research transitioned into an exploration of a hidden war hero in history major Zack Wenzell’s life—his late grandfather, John Wenzell.

Zack ran through a myriad of possible projects when trying to decide what to research—something about the 60s, maybe the evolution of rock-and-roll? As he watched the WWII-based television mini-series The Pacific with his family it dawned on him.

“Why not flying? Why not Grandpa’s flights?”

“I averaged four hours in the library every day for the entire semester…”

1st Lt. John Wesley Wenzell flew 25 missions as copilot of The Princess Pat, a B-17 Flying Fortress. Wenzell and the men of the 8th Air Force 388th bombardier squad participated in some of the most dangerous missions of the war, though his grandson knew very little about any of that until he began his research. There were some things the elder Wenzell—who passed away in 2006—never spoke about.

“There are two types of people who were in war: those who talk about it and those who don’t,” Zack reflected. “He didn’t.”

Not knowing exactly what he would find and armed with only small scraps of information about his grandfather’s service, Zack launched deep into facets of historical research at the Busse Library. Encyclopedias, books upon books, government documents, countless articles and hours later, Zack had uncovered a side of his grandfather’s youth he had never known about.

“I never gave a project quite this much effort before,” said Zack. “I averaged four hours in the library every day for the entire semester – handwriting drafts; reading books, magazines and articles; researching in online databases; and finally typing my thesis paper and putting together my PowerPoint presentation for class.”

From basic training, to combat crew training, and finally the horrors of air war itself, Zack followed the journey of the 8th Air Force through 459 missions and nearly 47,000 casualties. With odds of completing only five missions before being shot down, his grandfather was quite lucky to have survived the war, let alone to have finished the 25 missions needed to complete his service.

“My grandpa had seen some serious stuff,” Zack realized, including the Schweinfurt mission of October 14, 1943, when 600 men in the 8th Air Force – nearly one-fourth of their enlisted men – lost their lives over the skies of the German factory town.

“With the Schweinfurt mission, they thought there were only 600 enemy aircrafts, but there were actually 900 aircrafts,” said Zack. “In my research, one of the accounts said they were facing constant enemy attacks for over an hour and half before they reached the bombing site.”

John Wenzell (top right), copilot, with other members of the crew.

In spite of the additional adversity they encountered on their mission, the 8th Air Force knew that this air raid was imperative to slowing Hitler’s forces. “This factory in Schweinfurt accounted for producing 75 percent of all the Nazi’s ball bearings, which were a huge part of any military effort because they’re put in tanks, aircrafts, guns, vehicles and a lot of other essential equipment,” explained Zack. “During that same mission they were also attacking air factories that were building Germany aircrafts, which were the top fighter planes in the world and the U.S. didn’t have the air technology to compete with them.”

These strategic air missions allowed the U.S. to gain ground in the air and go deeper and deeper into Germany and also halted the production of the jet engine prototype, which would’ve changed the landscape of the war if Germany had been able to implement this technology sooner.

The second major strategic air mission target was the city of Bremen, which the 8th Air Force bombed 30 times during the war. Wenzell flew on three of those missions.

In Bremen, Hitler had a U-boat factory that produced roughly half of the finished products needed to build U-boats, which were German submarines. The location of the city allowed German forces to easily deploy finished U-boats into the North Sea. “If the Atlantic was covered with all those U-boats, then the invasion of Normandy never would have happened,” said Zack. “The missions the 8th Air Force completed, missions my grandfather specifically helped with, were incredibly significant to the outcome of WWII.”

In 2012, Zack and his family toured a B-17 like his grandfather would have flown.

Over the course of his service Wenzell won four medals including the Distinguished Flying Cross, a symbol of heroism in flight, for the role he played in the Schweinfurt air raid. Had it not been for his senior thesis in Dr. Edy Parson’s class, the important role his grandfather played would likely still be a mystery to Zack and the majority of his family members who have read Zack’s paper and been equally surprised by the heroics of 1st Lt. John Wesley Wenzell.

One prize find in the course of his research presented young Wenzell with an image of his grandfather in uniform, roughly the same age then as Zack is now, peering wistfully from a balcony. The features of the two men are so strikingly similar, yet their life journeys so very different. “My grandfather left the Air Force exactly 45 years before the day I was born,” Zack said. “I think that’s really profound, and it’s important to me.”

Through this project, Zack has realized his own life path, reaffirmed his love of history, and he’s been introduced to a heroic side of the grandfather he misses dearly.

He was a very loving man. He was a very smart man.”

Those who know Zack well echo the same sentiments about the younger Wenzell. 

In his future pursuits, which may include pursuing his graduate degree at a university in Europe, Zack hopes to explore more of his grandfather’s heroic past in England where the 8th Air Force was stationed. A path his mentor fully supports. “Zack has the key to open the door which will lead him to a bright future,” said Parsons. “He would like to be a college professor. I believe he has that potential, too.”


Written by Kelli Sanders and Sara Baughman