Friday, April 10, 2015

Remembering William Edward Cramsie

There are a number of days on the calendar that have special meaning to each of us.  Some have special meaning to most of us.  One of those days with special meaning to me personally is April 10th.  It was on this day in 1944 that William Edward Cramsie died in a valliant fight to defend freedom.  I didn't even know his name until 2005 when by chance I became the steward of Bill Cramsie's West Point class ring.  That is an interesting story in itself, but not for this post.  What is important on this day is that we remember those brilliant young men who had their whole lives before them and willingly gave them up in defense of Freedom.  There is no way to place a value on that.  Since 2005, I have come to love Bill Cramsie for what he stood for.   It is a great honor for me to mention his name and to talk with those who knew him personally.  Humanity is challenged almost daily, and maybe even moreso now than then, by one scourge or another.  in the face of that, we need to be true to our principles like Bill was.  It isn't always easy but it is necessary.

Bill Cramsie grew up in the foothills of the mountains dividing California from Nevada.  he was a leader from day one.  His dream was to become an aviator and to attend West Point.  He did that.  Everyone that I have met who knew Bill Cramsie, and there have been more than a few, had the same opinion of him.  Bill was a friendly, easy going and conscientious young man.  He made friends without even trying.  He graduated from West Point in the top 10% of his class, but never was pretentious or ostentatious to those he served with, especially not to the enlisted personnel who worked with him.

We might all model our lives after that of Bill Cramsie and think about the effect that we have on the world around us.  If we do nothing but satisfy our own needs, we are the enemy of civilization.  We cannot all be heroes, like Bill, but we can all do our best to make the world a better place to live.

Wall of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in England

Sunday, May 25, 2014

On Memorial Day we honor
those who died in service
to our country.

Memorial Day 2014

Let us pause for a moment to consider the significance of this day — set aside to honor those who have fallen in combat to preserve the freedoms that we still enjoy.  Nearly 100 members of the 416th Bomb Group lost their lives in combat.  Some were repatriated to the United States for burial, others were interred in American Battlefield Monument Cemeteries throughout Europe and Great Britain.  We could never do justice to all of them in a short message like this, but we will at least pay humble tribute to one, in memory of all.



Francis W. DeMand grew up in Wichita, Kansas, the son of a country doctor who died of pneumonia in 1926 while Francis was just a young boy.  He and his two sisters were raised by their mother, Martha, who ran a rooming house during the depression years.   Francis graduated from high school with war on the horizon and joined the Army with four of his high school buddies.  They all were enlisted at the same time, took flight training together and earned commissions as pilots in the Army Air Corps.  Lieutenants DeMand, Merchant, Morton, McDonald and Ritter all became A-20 Havoc pilots and were part of the initial cadre that joined the 416th Bomb Group at Oklahoma City. 


Lt. Robert Morton died in an aircraft training accident at Vinton, LA in 1943 and Lt. Arthur McDonald was killed when his plane crashed near London, England in April of 1944.  Lt. Ritter was transferred to the South Pacific, but survived the war and returned to Wichita, as did Lt. William Merchant, DeMand's closest friend and fellow pilot in the 671st.  In the photo below, Francis and Lt. Merchant stand before the A-20 "Uncle Bob" flown by DeMand.


Lt. DeMand was leading Box II, Flight 3 on September 29, 1944 in an attack on the railroad marshalling yards at Julich, Germany.  Lt. Dave Andrews was flying on DeMand's left wing, only a few yards away.  Dave recalls the event with absolute clarity in a "Witness to War" video seventy years after the fact.  An artillery barrage destroyed DeMand's plane in a direct hit, killing all but Ssgt Middleton, one of the gunners, who was blown clear of the plane by the explosion.  Originally buried in Germany, the remains of Lt. DeMand and of his Bombardier/Navigator Alwin Burns, were transferred after the war to the ABMC cemetery at Margraten, Netherlands.  The family of nearby resident Ron Wintjens has adopted the Grave of Francis and honors his memory on special occasions like this.  DeMand's gunner, Ssgt Reuben Troyer is buried at the ABMC cemetery in Ardennes. 


Ron Wintjens family (above) pays respects to Francis DeMand Grave at Margraten ABMC Cemetery.  Thanks to the generosity of Rick Greer, a nephew of this hero, the 416th Archive now has a rich collection of photos and documents about his life and service.  We are proud to honor Francis DeMand  this Memorial Day as we remember all those who died in service to their country.



Thursday, April 10, 2014

Seventy Years Later - Still Missing

On April 10, 1944—the day after Easter—1Lt William Edward Cramsie awoke before dawn and dressed in his flight suit for what were still very cold conditions at 12,000 feet with no cabin heater.  Following a quick breakfast and a mission briefing at the 416th Bomb Group operations center, a pre-fab Nissen Hut near the Wethersfield flight line, Bill caught a ride out to the hardstand in the back of a canvas covered weapons carrier.  The mood was light as this would be the first combat mission flown by the group since March 26th.  The A-20 Havoc crews were anxious to get back into the air.  They had been socked-in by miserable weather in England for two weeks and wanted to get back to business.  As the "taxi" dropped Bill off at an awesome new "G" model, he noted the tail number 39699 and wondered why they left off the 4?  Not that it really mattered.  The fuselage code "5C" for 671st Bomb Squadron and individual identifier "I" were more important.  Pilots and crews of the planes normally referred to their aircraft only by the last three digits anyway.  At "699", Bill met Staff Sergeants Charles Henshaw and Jack Steward.  They would be the turret and tunnel gunners flying with him on this mission—his fourth combat sortie.

The early enthusiasm was short lived.  As the flights approached France, bound for the V-1 launch site at Bois des Huit Rues, they were met with 10/10 cloud cover—solid overcast.  While Peter Royalty, the lead bombardier/navigator, searched fruitlessly for their assigned target the German anti-aircraft batteries with their radar controlled firing centers had no visual impediment.  Flak was intense as multiple passes over the target area gave the enemy ample opportunity to zero in on them.  The result was devastating.  Every ship in the formation sustained battle damage, three were lost.  Arthur Raines was the first to go down somewhere near Hazebrouck.  Bill's plane was hit on the first pass and lost an engine, but stayed with the formation for a second pass.  This required that the remaining engine be pushed to its limits in order to keep in position.  He was hit again on the second pass.  With the cloud cover abating somewhat to the north, the formation eventually bombed a target of opportunity about 18 miles northwest of its primary target.  As they headed back to England, Bill's West Point classmate and friend Scotty Street was also hit and lost an engine.  Both of them fell out of the formation and started losing altitude.  Lt. Street was able to make an emergency crash landing at RAF Bradwell Bay after his gunners bailed out.  Bill Cramsie was heard contacting the same field and receiving a bearing to base.  He never made it. 

And so began the first day of a seventy-year-long Homeric tale that has yet to see its final chapter.  Like Protesilaus, the first Greek killed in the Trojan War, Bill Cramsie was the first member of his West Point graduating class (June, 1943) to die in combat—the First to Fall.  The similarities are not merely poetic.  Protesilaus was a suitor of Helen, considered in Greek myth to be the most beautiful woman in the world.  At the academy, Bill met and fell in love with Dee Rogers.  The Irish reincarnation, without a doubt, of Helen. 
Protesilaus was from coastal Antron, a land described by Homer as "deep in grass".  Bill's grandfather came to America from county Antrim in Ireland, a land famous for its green Glens.  History did little to preserve the memory of Protesilaus or of Bill Cramsie, they both are remembered because of the irony and tragedy of their death and the remarkable endurance of their spirit.  At the British Museum in London is one of the few surviving representations of Protesilaus, a Roman stone torso.  Also in Britain, on the Wall of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery (Madingley), is engraved in stone one of the few public memorials to Bill Cramsie.

The search for Bill and his crew did not really begin until about three years ago when Ross Stewart,
at the time a Ministry of Defence Police inspector at Wethersfield, accepted the challenge of finding "699".  In studying the Missing Air Crew Report,  Individual Deceased Personnel Files, and other documents, the law enforcement training of Ross became an important asset.  He identified a transposition of numbers in the original reported position of Bill and crew.  What could only have been a last known position of one degree, 05 minutes longitude was formally recorded as one degree, 50 minutes.  The difference amounts to about 40 miles and placed "699" well into the North Sea instead of very close to land in Bradwell Bay.  Consequently, no search was initiated at the time.  This and other corroborating evidence would place the last known position of "699" on or near Buxey Sand, merely a few miles from the point on which the RAF base was located.  Two visits by Ross and local volunteers to this shallow sand bank have identified WWII aircraft wreckage, but have not been able to confirm any of it yet as that of an A-20 Havoc.

As we mark this 70th year since the loss of Bill and crew, we remain hopeful that new technologies and continued research will one day lead us to whatever remains of this heroic but virtually unheralded crew and will provide the long awaited and much deserved closure for all those who care.