It’s been almost 80 years since the military officials and the local priest showed up at her front door in Watertown. But Julia Welch, only 16 years old at the time, hasn’t forgotten the shocking message she was called to translate for her mostly Greek-speaking parents.

Her older brother, Michael, a tail gunner on a B-24, was missing in action. But the truth that he would never come home eventually became clear.

He was 19 years old.

“I have to say, my mother died when my brother died,” Julia said, choking up at the memory. “She didn’t want to do anything because he wasn’t there.”

On Dec. 26, 1944, Sgt. Michael Pappas had been part of a bombing run aimed at taking out a fuel factory in German-occupied Poland. During that mission, he and the other members of the “Lindell" crew, named after the plane’s pilot, Arthur Lindell, were shot down.

For most of her life, Julia, now 96, and her family believed that Michael would always be lost. And for a long time, the holiday season took on a different tone.

Just one year before “Butch,” as the Lindell crew’s plane was called, was shot down, Bing Crosby recorded the original version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The song, a tribute to service members stationed away from home, has become a standard of the season over the generations. But not for Julia. Whenever that tune came on her radio, she immediately changed the station.

“And it was only later that we understood why,” said Claire Welch, one of Julia’s children.

For years, Michael’s story was only shared in bits and pieces, a tragedy too painful to revisit in detail.

Still, Michael’s family never stopped wondering about him, hoping they’d eventually learn about his fate. But only in recent years did they take matters into their own hands.

What they found was a story that went beyond just one person or crew.

An ocean away, a researcher starts to wonder

In the 1990s, Szymon Serwatka, a Polish IT professional who studies bombers shot down over Poland, came across a letter to the editor in a magazine.

Its author was seeking people who had more information about a B-17 shot down in Poland.

“At that point in time, I was not aware that there were any American aircraft shot down over Poland,” he said.

The letter wasn’t about the Lindell crew — but it was the first step in connecting Serwatka to the Pappas family.

During the Second World War, Poland was caught between the ambitions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. It was invaded and partitioned by both countries before Germany invaded Soviet-occupied Poland in 1941.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state, and the western Allies’ contributions were brushed out of the official story.

When the Cold War thawed, access to information about the war and American bombers naturally spread. His interest piqued, and Serwatka started researching archives, writing letters and sharing information with other like-minded enthusiasts.

Those researches founded theAircraft Missing in Action Project, with a mission to find the stories of the downed bombers in Poland.

Serwatka first caught wind of the Lindell crew’s story around the year 2000. Initially, the case didn’t necessarily jump out to him amid the other missing crews.

“But this was really the only crew that you have everybody missing,” he said. “Well, we know by now that they died. But we never were able to recover any remains.”

A Watertown son enlists

Michael Pappas was the oldest of three children. Born to Greek immigrants, he and his two sisters, Julia and Florence, the youngest, grew up in a household that could be strict. Costa Pappas, the family’s patriarch, wasn’t keen on letting his daughters to go to the movies, and dances with boys were off limits.

His wife, Maria, however, had a softer side. On Sundays during the war, she would even bring food and coffee to Italian prisoners of war at a site near the Pappas family farm.

A family photo of Michael with his mother, Maria.
Welch Family Courtesy

“She always said, ‘They had a mother,’” Julia remembers. “And that’s why she did it.”

It was in this dynamic that Michael, who delivered eggs from the farm and was a member of the National Honor Society at Watertown High School, decided to join the United States Army Air Forces.

Julia said all his friends had entered service, and he didn’t want to be left behind.

Before long, he was in Europe.

In his last letter to his mother, Michael explained that he'd be on leave soon.

“And he was gonna go visit my mother’s mother, who was in Greece,” Julia said. “And she was 16 when my mother was born, so she was a young woman even then … And that’s what he was looking forward to. But, of course, he never made it.”

Looking for the Lindell crew

According to the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency, there are more than 72,000 missing service members from World War II who are still unaccounted for.

Jerry Whiting is the historian for the 485th Bomb Group Association, which included the Lindell crew. Whiting is also a former detective, and he’s used those skills to try and find those who never came home.

Like any cold case, the stories of downed planes can be complicated to string together. The fog of war, strain of time and sometimes inaccurate narratives of eyewitnesses can make it difficult to piece together the puzzles of where planes went.

In the case of the Lindell crew, Whiting had a direct connection: Wayne Whiting, Jerry’s father, who had been a tail gunner on the same mission when Butch was shot down. Wayne Whiting didn’t see the plane get hit, but he did see two pieces of the aircraft falling over the target. Wayne's story matched the account of another crewman’s diary.

Serwatka had records indicating Allied forces were searching for the Lindell crew’s plane more than 30 miles from the target, but that was always a big question mark for him.

“You don’t need to be an aviation expert to [to know] if you have an aircraft cut in half, this aircraft will not fly 30 miles,” Serwatka said.

By calculating the speed and altitude of the plane and considering an eyewitness report, he keyed in on a possible crash site in the target area. A German report pointed to the area of the suspected crash site that mentioned aircraft wreckage with parts of the tail number that matched the Butch.

But by the time he got to the site, almost any remaining pieces of the plane were lost to time.

That’s not a neat end to the story. But Serwatka knows that sometimes he just won’t have all the answers. Still, he tries to get people as close to closure as possible, even if they’re trying to find the answer to a question lost in the past.

“I was always sort of shocked and saddened that even though these stories are 80 years old, to these people, these stories just happened like yesterday,” he said. “It’s incredible to see how a war trauma goes from generation to generation.”

A surviving sister travels to Poland

At her old home in Belmont, photos of Julia’s family adorned a wall in the sunroom. Among all those faces, a portrait of Michael in his military garb stood out. It was a photo people knew not to ask too much about.

The image of Michael Pappas that hung on Julia's wall.
Welch Family Courtesy

But when Julia sold that house and moved out in 2015, she had to take down and carefully wrap the photo of Michael. It was then that she shared some of her emotions and memories of Michael with her son-in-law, Ed Cornelia, for the first time.

“That was the moment that the door opened, at least for me,” Cornelia said. “And she shared her story, shared her pain. And left me with almost a rhetorical question, which was, ‘Will they ever find my brother?’”

So Cornelia, who is married to Julia's daughter, Claire Welch, decided to look.

Eventually, it became clear that if they wanted answers, they’d need to travel to the place of Michael’s last moments: Poland.

In 2016, Julia, Cornelia and relatives set out across the pond, where they met Marcin Kopytko.

Speaking to GBH News via Zoom from Poland, Kopytko said his home city of Kędzierzyn-Koźle is near the village of Stare Koźle.

That’s the village that Michael is believed to be buried in, although it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty. Kopytko points out this is accepted as the gravesite, with reports indicating they were taken to a church graveyard.

“They were buried at night, maybe evening, nobody saw it because it’s the middle of the winter,,” Kopytko said. “There [were] not many villagers at that time in the village.”

Kopytko said American exhumation workers visited the area in 1947, but were prevented from a second visit by the communist government. He thinks they could have found the Lindell crew then.

A bigger picture of war

When Michael’s family originally started looking for him, they thought they may be able to bring his remains home to be laid to rest with his parents.

When it became clear that wouldn’t be possible, Julia's idea of closure shifted. Now, she tries to take comfort in knowing that her beloved brother rests in a place where he’s revered.

A monument in the graveyard commemorates those who perished in the air raids. The family believes he’s with his buddies from the plane. They even have a tiny piece of what they believe to be Michael’s aircraft, Butch.

But their trips to Poland also gave them a bigger sense of the scale, and reality, of World War II.

The fuel factory the bombers targeted was helping to power the Third Reich. Approximately 4,500 prisoners went through a subcamp of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp that was in the same area.

But the story isn't as simple as good guys and bad. The bombs the Allied planes dropped killed civilians along with military targets.

Claire remembers her mother speaking to an octogenarian of German descent who thought he might have had some clue as to where Michael was.

“And my mother leaned in and said, ‘I want you to know that I do not believe my grief is larger than yours.’”

That man lost both of his brothers in the war. Claire recalls the conversation having an almost transformative power on both participants.

“He looked like a little boy talking about it, and she seemed like that teenager again,” Claire said. “And they were trying to comfort each other.”

Another experience that stuck out to Claire was walking through a cemetery where Russians were laid to rest.

“There were rows and rows and rows of unnamed Russian boys who had died,” she said. “There were some that were identified, but most of them were unmarked graves. And all I could think of is, ‘This is Michael’s experience, on steroids.’”

Peace in not knowing

These days, Christmas is a brighter affair at Julia Welch’s Waltham home.

There, nutcrackers stand on guard and a jolly Santa Claus figure is posted in a corner of the dining room. Christmas cards from family members adorn the mantle.

Throughout her time speaking with GBH News, Julia had a lot to say about her brother and her family. But she kept returning to one question: “Will we ever have peace?”

A photo of the Lindell crew
Welch Family Courtesy

World War II, the deadliest conflict this planet has ever seen, serves as a warning on the dangers of an unchecked ambition for power and authoritarianism. And soon, people like Julia who know firsthand the price of that bloodshed will no longer be with us.

But even if she can’t bring her brother home for another Christmas, she’s still trying to make sure the memories of Michael Pappas, and others lost to war, remain alive.

“We never should forget them,” she said. “They gave their lives up so we could survive. And it’s not fair to forget them. It’s not just my brother, there’s thousands of people that died. Here, there and everywhere. Every war brings a lot.”