NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — A World War II fighter pilot at 19, Roman “Ray” Mierzejewski flew high in his all-too-brief life, and decades after his death he remains his family’s hero.

Monday, Dec. 2 would have been his 90th birthday. Born and raised in this city, he left high school and bucked the odds to become a fighter pilot while still in his teens.

But his story took a tragic twist. He was shot down and killed over Italy in 1943, six months after earning his wings.

His nephew, 52-year-old John B. Mier of Merrillville, Ind., has spent some 15 years researching records and even locating the Italian man who, as a 13-year-old, witnessed the air battle that claimed Mierzejewski’s life.

Mier said his uncle’s accomplishments are a source of family pride and he sent his research and some photos to The Standard-Times as a way of honoring the uncle he never knew in his hometown on his 90th birthday.

“He did something that very few people can do and he did it at a young age,” Mier said in a telephone interview. “It’s amazing. Here in the U.S. a person can use their skills and abilities and achieve anything they want. For him to achieve the status (of fighter pilot) at 19 was just amazing.”

His nephew said Mierzejewski was a carpentry student at New Bedford Vocational High School when he left school in October 1941, two months before his 18th birthday, and joined the Army Air Force on Jan. 29, 1942.

Mier said he cannot explain how a carpentry student, who liked to build model airplanes as a youngster, could earn his wings, but he did, becoming one of the Army Air Force’s youngest fighter pilots at 19.

The Army Air Force had eliminated its requirement for a college education in favor of passing a battery of tests as part of the Aviation Cadet Qualifying Examination by the time Mierzejewski enlisted. He earned the rank of second lieutenant on Dec. 12, 1942.

Mierzejewski died years before Mier was born, but his curiosity about his uncle’s death began during conversations with his grandmother, Anna Mierzejewski, who had a portrait of him hanging on a wall at her home on Prescott Street in New Bedford.

“I just felt a connection to my Uncle Ray and I wanted to know what happened to him,” Mier said.

The Army had declared Mierzejewski “killed in action,” and although the family knew he died over Italy, they did not know anything about the circumstances, he said.

But Mier, who would sign his name and leave messages on aviation websites, said he got lucky when he left a message on a site about the Italian Air Force during World War II.

He was looking for information about the Italian chaplain who performed Mierzejewski’s funeral service and received an email from Alessandro Ragatzu, who said his father witnessed the air battle that killed the young pilot.

Mier and his wife, Joan, went to Italy in October 2002 and met Alessandro and his father Francesco Ragatzu, who witnessed Mierzejewski’s P40 Warhawk being shot down over the Island of Sardinia on June 28, 1943. Mier also visited his uncle’s grave.

According to Ragatzu, Mierzejewski’s plane was pitted in a tough, one-on-one battle with an MC 205 Italian aircraft. Mierzejewski, who was protecting a squad of B-26 bombers from the 17th Bombing Group, had become separated from his wingman.

The MC 205 got off a long-range shot and hit Mierzejewski’s plane, which caught on fire, according to Ragatzu, who had obtained a copy of the Italian pilot’s report.

Mierzejewski managed to bail out of his aircraft, but was too low to the ground and his parachute did not fully open and he died when he hit the ground, according to Mier.

His questions finally answered, Mier said “I was just overwhelmed with emotion.”

When he saw his uncle’s grave in Nettuno, Italy, a 30-minute train ride south of Rome, “I just sat down, looked at his headstone and started crying.”

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