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Decades after father's plane crash, Colorado brothers presented with recovered piece of craft

Bill and David Knobbe with piece of father's plan
Posted at 9:24 PM, Jun 27, 2023

DENVER — Keeping the connection to fallen loved ones takes a lot of intention and work. Sometimes, though, fate lends a helping hand.

Bill and David Knobbe of Denver experienced this firsthand after a phone call from a stranger last month reconnected them with their past in a more profound way than they could have ever imagined.

The Knobbes’ father, William Hodgson, was a pilot to his core. As Bill Knobbe described his father, he “learned how to fly before he got his driver’s license.”

Hodgson flew in World War II and the Korean War before moving his family to Buckley Airfield in Colorado. He spent years flying both commercially for United Airlines and completing missions with the Colorado Air National Guard.

“He would have to fly certain missions, training missions,” Bill Knobbe recalled. “And that’s when it happened.”

In February 1958, Hodgson was flying a mission from Buckley Airfield to upstate New York, with a refueling stop planned in Minnesota. As he was flying over Nebraska, he encountered issues with his plane and lost control.

“There’s different stories on how and what it looked to crash,” Bill said. “One, from an eyewitness we heard about in Nebraska, saw the airplane dive-bombing with black smoke coming out of the tail — and then the big fireball from the crash.”

Bill was only six years old at the time, and David was just three. The loss of their father has impacted the trajectory of their lives “tremendously,” and for 65 years now, they have had to cling to the very early memories they formed with their father before his death.

But a decade ago, unbeknownst to them, fate was beginning its work to return another piece of their father to them.

Colette and Loren Jessen are farmers, and in 2012, bought a large plot of land just outside Grant, Nebraska. One day shortly after acquiring the land, Loren Jessen was tending to the field and discovered a long piece of metal lodged into the earth. Intrigued, he dislodged the metal from the ground and found a name etched into it: William Hodgson.

“Back in 2012, you know, the internet wasn’t what it is today — and so it was hard to find the brothers, or any next of kin,” Colette Jessen recalled. “I’d try and look every few years, it seemed like, and just kept hitting a wall.”

The Jessens knew they had to find the loved ones of William Hodgson, and return this precious artifact. Colette began enlisting the help of local veterans groups, and finally made a breakthrough with connections on Facebook.

Colette connected with a woman in Minnesota named Sherry Hancock, with a knack for tracking down long lost relatives and descendants. After a lot of research and sleuthing, the dots were connected: Bill Knobbe in Denver was William Hodgson’s son.

“I immediately called Bill, and luckily he answered the phone,” Jessen recalled. “And so I just said, this is my name and I’m looking for the son of William Hodgson. And he goes, ‘That was my dad.’ And I mean, it still sends goosebumps to me because it was such a breakthrough.”

The connection was made in May, just about a week before Memorial Day — serendipitous timing to meet for the hand-off of a lifetime. Both Bill and David made the drive to the Jessens’ farm in Nebraska, and on Memorial Day, were presented with the piece of their father’s plane.

“They needed to have it in their family,” Jessen said.

The Knobbes want the world to know their father’s story. They have been speaking with media outlets in both Nebraska and Colorado, and they’re now working with the Wings Over the Rockies museum in Denver to get the airplane piece and their father’s photos added to its collection.

“I think that would be a great tribute to him,” David said. “And for other people to see it as well. I think that’s really important.”

“Something nice happened for somebody that died 65 years ago, giving his life to his country and his family,” Bill added. “He deserves this. He was that kind of man.”

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