My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Search

My father lost his life in combat on March 2, 1945, when his B-17 was shot down by enemy fighters over Czechoslovakia. He was 27 years old; a member of the 398th Bomb Group, 603rd Squadron. It was only his fifth mission. It was also his wife Jocile's 24th birthday and she was pregnant with their second child, my brother Steve, who would be born three months after my father's death. I was 2 ½ -years-old and my father was the biggest thing in my life. Growing up in his physical absence, and among other members of “the greatest generation,” I understand what Tom Mathews calls “the tidal pull of WWII,” especially for those of us who were born were born in its turbulence and grew up in the shadow of its heroes, living or dead.

I wrote something about my dad's childhood, which can be read here. My dad joined the Army Air Corps in June 1943, and graduated in Class 44-F at Pecos, Texas a year later. For the next seven months my mother and I joined him, living on bases at Roswell, New Mexico, Sioux City, Iowa, and Lincoln, Nebraska. I last saw him as he shipped out in January 1945, two months before his final mission. Since then I have only seen him in dreams and memories, but his effect on me has been inexorable.

I inherited a box of photos, letters, photos, documents, mementos, and a couple of medals.  I learned a good bit about his early life and his Air Force training in the states but only a sketchy story of his service and death. I knew he flew out of England, his plane had crashed in Czechoslovakia, and the tail gunner was the only survivor. His papers and documents revealed few clues about his service. War Department correspondence from 1945-46, indicated that he had flown from a base at Nuthampstead, England, and that the target that March 2 was Bohlen, Germany. There was a 1945 letter to my mother from tail gunner “Sam” Haakenson, written soon after his release from a POW camp, and another from someone named “Ridge.” (I now know that was Lawson Ridgeway, my father’s navigator who was on another plane that day.) Both expressed hope that my father and his crew would be found alive. For sixty years that was as much detail as I had.

I wrote to the Air Force, the Pentagon, and the National Archives seeking his military records and other information—to no avail. They told that a 1972 fire in St. Louis had destroyed many WWII records including his. I insisted that there must be a MACR (Missing Aircrew Report) somewhere, or at least a record of which unit he served with, but no one seemed interested in looking any further. I had hit a dead end.

Then in March, 2005, with the family gathered following our mother’s funeral, Steve and my son Jeff suggested we try a Google search on his computer. Starting simply with “B17 Bomb Groups,” we found a list of English air bases indicating that Nuthampstead was home to the 398th Bomb Group. This linked us to the 398th website and to their Flak News, with articles about the surviving tail gunner, Selmer Haakensen. We were stunned to learn there was a memorial to our father and his crew at Slany, Czech Republic; a website for the Slany Aeroklub had photos of the memorial! After 60 years, with a few keystrokes, the stone was rolling away!

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