Haddonfield genealogist helped Army identify remains of airman killed in 1946

Zoltan Dobovich's remains lay for years in a grave with those of his fellow victims.
Zoltan Dobovich's remains lay for years in a grave with those of his fellow victims.
Posted: January 01, 2013

Staff Sgt. Zoltan Dobovich's family knew he died in the crash of a B-17 in the Alps on the Italian-French border on Nov. 1, 1946.

And they knew remains found at the crash site the following summer were buried in a common grave at Arlington Cemetery under a tombstone listing the names of all eight Army Air Force officers and airmen killed.

But they did not know whether any of the body parts recovered then or in subsequent decades as the glaciers on the Mont Blanc range retreated belonged to the radioman from Bucks County - until now.

Thanks in part to some detective work by a Haddonfield genealogist, the military was able to conduct DNA testing that identified some of the remains as those of Dobovich.

Last week, those body parts were returned to his family and buried with military honors at the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Cemetery in Burlington County after a memorial service at a funeral home in Mount Holly.

Among those attending the service was Megan Smolenyak, who, in 14 years as a contractor for the Army, has tracked down the relatives of hundreds of soldiers whose remains were unidentified.

"This is a wonderful turnout," the self-taught genealogist said of the three dozen relatives and members of veteran groups gathered around Dobovich's flag-draped coffin at the Perinchief Chapels.

Smolenyak, a self-described Army brat, said she had attended funerals where no mourners showed up.

"They gave me the flag at one as part of the ceremony, but I returned it," she said.

Smolenyak received the Dobovich assignment from the Army early in 2012 as a high-priority case.

To date, the remains of just two other airmen killed in the same crash have been identified.

To link remains to an individual, the military relies on matches of mitochondrial DNA, which passes from the maternal line. Once a sample is obtained, it is sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Honolulu for comparison to the remains.

In Dobovich's case, his immediate family was a dead-end because the only living survivors were the children of his brother Anthony, who died in 2006.

Smolenyak, the author of six books on genealogy who once served as a spokeswoman for Ancestry.com, said she had to research the family tree of Dobovich's mother, Rose, who, like her husband, Joseph, came to the United States from Hungary as a child.

"The mother was one of six kids. All but one of them were girls," said Smolenyak, who reports to the Past Conflict Repatriations Branch at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

Her research led her to Barbara Rice, a granddaughter of Julia Vizler Sabo, one of Rose's sisters.

Rice, who lives in Georgia, said she recalled visiting her Aunt Rose as a child but knew nothing about Sgt. Dobovich, or his fate.

"Everything came out of the clear blue at me," Rice said of the initial call from Smolenyak.

The Army later contacted her and sent her a DNA saliva swab kit.

Carlton Dobovich, the airman's nephew, who lives in Jackson, Ocean County, said the immediate family had no idea Rice existed, but Smolenyak said that was not uncommon in the United States, with its mobile population.

"My mother's side of the family didn't keep in contact much," Rice said. "On my father's side, we're Southern, and we know who our fifth cousins are."

Smolenyak says her calls catch people off-guard.

"They think it's a scam," she said. "I've been doing it for so long, you can see how we've become more wary, more suspicious. It's harder to make the calls."

Rice said she, too, thought it could be a scam when she was first contacted but was reassured after doing some research of her own on the Internet.

Smolenyak said that as a genealogist, she usually ends up knowing more about families than individual members do - and not just about distant relatives.

"I've had three cases where I had to call someone and convince them they had a brother they never knew about who was killed in Korea or World War II," she said. "Imagine a stranger calls you and says, I'm calling about your brother, and you say, 'What brother?' "

Though Smolenyak had to backtrack a bit in the Dobovich case, it in no way compared to what she had to do to track down a possible mitochondrial DNA source for one Vietnam War casualty.

"DNA lines will die out," she said. "So when that happens, you back up another generation and then another generation."

She had to go back to the 1700s "to get a line that made it all the way back" to the present to find matches that could confirm the identity of the remains.

The candidates were all fourth cousins of the soldier. He was returned to his family and buried in 2010.

"But that's extreme," said Smolenyak, who can speak of other cases only in general terms because of privacy concerns.

At the funeral home on Thursday, Smolenyak met Dobovich's nephews Carlton and Joseph Dobovich and his niece Rosalie Brown for the first time.

"This is great," Carlton Dobovich said when they were introduced.

Joseph Dobovich said that to him, his uncle was someone who existed in family stories, and he never imagined one day taking part in a funeral for him 66 years after his death.

"All the stuff that went into this is phenomenal. I had no idea they went to this extent, and I'm ex-military," Joseph Dobovich, a Navy veteran, said of the effort to identify his uncle's remains and return them to his family.


Contact Joseph Gambardello at 856-779-3844 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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