Estelle Sherry sat at Beth El Cemetery in Avon and was presented with a folded flag. It’s a moment that’s been 75 years in the making. The 92-year-old finally got the chance to say goodbye.
"These families in many cases, the last thing they heard about their loved one is they went missing," said Dr. Stephen Johnson, a Department of Defense historian who works for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, also known as DPAA. DPAA is an agency within the DOD that works to recover missing personnel from all past wars and conflicts.
"I just knew that my uncle had been killed in WWII," said Richard Sherry, who is Estelle’s son.
That’s the telegram the family of Army First Lt. Herschel Mattes received back in 1944: killed in action in Italy. That’s all they’d learn until five years ago when NBC Connecticut first spoke to Estelle about her recent correspondence.
"You will be surprised to receive a letter from me, a perfect stranger …" it began. And it revealed her brother’s remains had been found.
"It’s like going through a death all over again," Estelle said at the time.
Eventually the journey revealed that while dive-bombing an enemy vehicle, Mattes’ aircraft was struck by ground fire and he died in the crash. With enemy forces nearby, his remains could not be recovered, and we’re told he was buried by locals. A few years later, Mattes was moved to the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and known only as X-977. That is until this year when Mattes was officially identified and brought home. The plane carrying him landed in Connecticut on Friday.
"My uncle is coming home and his sister is still alive to see this. It’s just amazing," said Richard.
"This is my mother’s favorite person in the world," said Estelle’s older son, Stephen. "I think it’s a great relief for my mother to have some closure."
For Mattes, it was a display of full military honors at the cemetery in Avon. And the person who sent that original letter, Dr. Vincenzo Lucherini traveled from Italy to see it. Another man crucial to this moment, Dr. Johnson, was also there. Both men worked tirelessly to make this reunion a reality. The Sherry family says they’re now considered family.
"It’s so important for me. I am moved and proud," said Lucherini.
"We owe it both to the missing – we leave no person behind – and we owe it to the families," said Johnson.
It took most of her life, but now Estelle finally knows what happened and where her brother is.
"It’s been 75 years. A long time since she saw him last,” said Richard. “And she gets to say goodbye."