Mystery of Gatineau man's grandfather, a Polish war hero, solved with DNA

A Gatineau man who grew up not knowing the fate of his grandfather, who was a Polish pilot in the Second World War, has finally been able to lay his questions about the war hero to rest.

'It definitely gives you this sense of relief, it gives you a sense of belonging'

From left to right, Michael Melaney stands with his father Andre Melaney, brother Mark Melaney and sister Andrea Chambers at Tadeusz Stabrowski's reburial ceremony in France. (Mike Melaney)

A Gatineau man who grew up not knowing the fate of his grandfather, who was a Polish pilot, has finally been able to lay his questions about the war hero to rest. 

Michael Melaney's grandfather, Tadeusz Stabrowski, flew a Spitfire plane for the English air force in the Second World War and was shot down in the Atlantic near Dieppe, France, in 1943.

He was decorated with the Polish Cross of Valour, but what happened to him remained a mystery to Melaney's family.  

"We knew that he had landed his plane on the water," Melaney told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "We knew that he had gotten out of the plane with a life jacket and they had gone back to rescue him in a seaplane and they spotted him on the way there, and when they turned around they lost sight of him. And so at that point, they abandoned the mission to rescue him."

Melaney's grandmother moved on — with the six-month-old son she'd had with Stabrowski — and eventually married the man she was dating when she was unexpectedly swept off her feet by the Polish pilot.

But Melaney said his grandmother never stopped believing her first husband was alive. 

"My grandmother had always thought that he had survived because he was fluent in German ... so she always thought that he was on some secret mission, right? Because you're always hoping that they're alive."

Tadeusz Stabrowski was nicknamed the 'Drunken Angel' and was described as a daring pilot with nerves of steel. (Mike Melaney)

Finally finding Stabrowski

About two years ago, Melaney's father got a call from the Polish government.

"They had said there's a grave [in France] and the grave is marked as an unknown Polish airman. And they had asked if it was OK if they could get a DNA sample from my father to compare," he said. 

His dad sent in a cheek scrape, the body was exhumed to compare DNA samples, and when the results came in it was clear: a 99.999 per cent match confirmed the remains were absolutely those of his grandfather, Tadeusz Stabrowski.

"It definitely gives you this sense of relief, it gives you a sense of belonging. You know who he is, you know where he was. I'm attached to him. He is my grandfather."

A picture of Polish pilot Tadeusz Stabrowski at his official reburial ceremony on March 11, 2018. (Mike Melaney)

Symbol for lost heroes

Melaney's family was brought over to France for his grandfather's official military reburial ceremony in Le Crotoy on France's northern coast on March 11, 2018, exactly 75 years after Stabrowski's death. He said it was an amazing day, but that he had no idea what was in store. 

"There [were] armed guards and [French] military cadets ... air cadets, Polish military, many, many giant flags in a procession just for my grandfather," he said. "I don't know if we came prepared … we had no idea, they didn't tell us."

One of the speakers, the Polish ambassador to France, spoke about his own grandfather who went missing in the war and was never found. 

We put our hands on the tombstone and you can feel that you're connected.- Mike Melaney

"He said it brought a closure to even that, how even though he was a hero, it was for all the heroes," Melaney said. 

"It was a symbol for them. A symbol that they could put a name to, not just to this person but all of the people who are missing. It's still very fresh over there."

But amidst the pomp and circumstance, the flags and speeches, the trip to France was about family. 

"We put our hands on the tombstone and you can feel that you're connected," Melaney said.

Melaney's grandmother never got to find out what happened to Stabrowski — she died before the Polish government made that call. 

The rest of the Melaney family, though, got to see the mystery solved. And for Melaney's own dad, it was a chance to learn about a father he never got to know. 

"My father has Spitfire planes all over the house, you know, you have a big picture of a spitfire on the wall," he said. "My dad's always trying to go to these air shows because he's trying to bring himself back to that, trying to feel it."