Friday, December 12, 2008

CSI specialists unravel Cramsie mystery

In the course of my research into the Cramsie family history, I was able to retrieve a copy of Frank Cramsie's WWI Draft Registration Card. These documents provide some very useful information, including age, physical description, place of residence, nearest living relative, place of employment and occupation. The cards were also signed by the registrant, which is an interesting personal connection to the individual. When I read through Frank's registration card, I could decipher most of the facts. But though I could see that he was employed by the Yuba Manufacturing Company in Marysville, California, I could not for the life of me make any sense out of his stated occupation. The image was poor and the handwriting was a little unusual. Fortunately, I happened to send the image to Tom Rickels, a son of Bill Cramsie's sister Ruth. Tom is a crime scene investigator with the Kern County, California Sheriff's Office and analysis of physical evidence is their business.

Tom replied the next day with the following:

"I believe we've solved the mystery of his job description. After a bit of handwriting analysis, digital imaging, and asking my friend Mark Riehle to take a look, we're very comfortable that the mystery word is: WAREHOUSEMAN. The first letter is a "W". The ascender on the letter (the last one when writing, or, on the right) is quite stubby; almost unseen. It appears that the word "warehouseman" was written with two breaks in it: ware-house-man. Mark really solved it, though. He's somewhat colorblind as sees gray tones with a vengeance. He had it figured out in less than a minute. I had to play with it on the computer until I could see what he was seeing. We all confirmed our findings with each other and are confident the word is "warehouseman". Mark is our "go-to" guy when we have difficult fingerprints to analyze or photographs that are muddy. I guess colorblindness isn't such a negative after all! I also did a quick search on Yuba Manufacturing Company. It appears that it specialized in making dredges for mining purposes."

From this document, and the sleuthing of Tom and his colleagues, we now know where, and in what sort of job, Frank Cramsie worked prior to his employment with the J.R. Garrett company in Marysville. The entire story of Bill Cramsie and his family has come to light in ways virtually identical to this. Tiny scraps of information have provided basic facts which, when set in context, create an interesting family and personal history.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Class of June 1943

When Bill Cramsie reported to West Point in the summer of 1940, he was one of 590 young men who had ambitions of graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. They became the class of 1944. Due to the wartime demand for leaders in the field, Congress approved an accelerated program that scheduled the original class of 1943 (normally graduating in June) for early graduation in January of that year. The class of 1944 was accelerated by a full year, with a new graduation date of June 1943. Consequently, there were two graduating classes in 1943—January and June. Of the initial group, 514 received their diplomas and commissions in the U.S. Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. One of those who did not graduate was 1960s counterculture icon Timothy F. Leary.

The photo of cadet Cramsie posted here was shared by Tom Rickels, a son of Bill's sister Ruth. According to Tom, this photo hung on the bedroom wall of his parents for "as long as I can remember." It is a beautiful example of the technique known then as "tinting", which converted a black and white image to a color image. My maternal grandfather was a professional photographer and my mother learned to tint black and white photos as a young girl. I have several family photos from that era that she tinted. In fact, she taught me as a young boy to tint photos. It was a process that required great care, somewhat like oil painting, and I was unfortunately devoid of talent in that area. The photo tells us one fact about Bill Cramsie that surprisingly is omitted from any of the official records—the color of his eyes. We know from draft registration cards of his father and other family members that blue eyes were a genetic disposition, and the black and white photos of that era confirm that Bill's eyes were not a dark color. Still, the documention of their actual color comes from this photo alone.

Monday, December 8, 2008

416th Bomb Group

The first road sign on my journey in search of Bill Cramsie was a military unit designation, the 416th Bomb Group (Light). This unit was formed in the U.S. and trained at Lake Charles, Louisiana and Laurel, Mississippi before transferring to England and the 9th Air Force in January of 1944. Surprisingly, the 416th did not have an individual unit patch. Each squadron had their own patches and they all wore the 9th AF patch. Sixteen West Point graduates from the class of June 1943 were assigned to the 416th in September of 1943, with four being assigned to each of the Group's four squadrons. Bill Cramsie was assigned to the 671st Bomb Squadron. My first exposure to the 416th came in the early days of 2006, partly through the book Attack Bombers We Need You, by 416th veteran Ralph Conte, and partly through email exchanges with former 671st gunner Ray Jones. It happened that Ray lived close enough for my wife Doris and I to drive to and we met him for a very pleasant session of war stories and photo album exploration. That summer, Doris and I attended the Group's annual reunion at Louisville, KY and met about a dozen veterans and their families. Some of the families came in force and it was much like an old fashioned family reunion. Indeed, that is exactly what happened in our case, we were immediately adopted by the group and made to feel like we had always been there. That instant bonding was at first a surprise to me, but the deeper I got into the writing of First To Fall, the less surprising those bonds became. I rarely met anyone in the process of researching the life of Bill Cramsie that I didn't have an immediate affinity for. It was, strangely enough, as though they had expected me. I won't go into the history of the 416th here because I have established a memorial site to the group that does precisely that. We have since attended the Group reunions at Oshkosh, WI and at Topsail Island, NC. The veterans are unable to manage the preparation and hosting of a reunion themselves, so it will fall to individual families to host any future reunions. Doris and I volunteered to host the 2009 reunion at Branson, MO on September 9th through 12. Most of the surviving Group members are in their late 80s or early 90s. They are, without exception, a most cordial and pleasant bunch to be around and becoming a part of their world has been a great honor for me. In future visits here I'll post some individual vignettes of those 416th veterans whom I have met.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

First To Fall Video

This simple video is my first attempt at the medium. It was produced on a Macintosh computer using the iMovie application. It is nothing more than still photos presented in a slide show mode with accompanying audio—nothing at all fancy and there are no actual video shots in the clip. I plan on trying my hand at a more sophisticated version in the near future. The opening photo, which zooms in on the penetrating eyes of Bill Cramsie is the photo from his West Point class yearbook, the Howitzer. The following shot is a photo of the cadets assembled at the West Point Station of the West Shore Railroad on December 20, 1941 for Chrismas leave. The third image is a collage of Bill Cramsie, the Catholic Chapel Choir, Bill's West Point class ring and a bird's eye view of the academy grounds. This zooms into a digital recreation of the airplane that Bill flew on April 10, 1944 and went down with on that day in Bradwell Bay, near the mouth of the Thames River. The final segment scrolls words from the final stanza of West Point school song "Alma Mater". The clip is supported by the tune "Garyowen" (sic) by Contemplator's Folk Music. Garryowen was an Irish folk tune that was popular in America in the mid-19th century and became the main marching tune of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry. Custer was a West Point graduate and is buried at West Point. References to the tune are woven subtly through First To Fall.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Ring

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Ring Day in the life of a USMA cadet. The class ring is not only an emblem of achievement, it's a very personal symbol of the code by which graduates pledge to live their lives — a pledge of dedication to "Duty, Honor and Country." In fact, these three words are emblazoned on each ring as part of the coat of arms displayed in its impressive design. When I first held the class ring of Bill Cramsie in my hand, my initial thought was one of wonderment. How could such a magnificent and obviously cherished object be floating aimlessly, with no personal attachment? Although I had no connection to the ring whatever, I had an overwhelming feeling that it was "beckoning" me and my will to resist was losing ground fast.

I had heard that the ring was to West Pointers akin to a wedding ring. They rarely removed the ring from their finger. Colonel Richard Wheeler showed me very graphically how true that was. At a 416th Bomb Group reunion in 2006, he showed me his ring—it was worn to the point that one could hardly make out the detail of the designs. Dick Wheeler was a classmate of Bill Cramsie's and a close friend as well. They trained together, attended church together and flew together in combat. The contrast between Dick's heavily worn ring (that he has been wearing constantly since 1943) and Bill Cramsie's nearly pristine ring was a stark reminder that Cramsie had died young. Equally stark was the realization that this ring should be somewhere at the bottom of Bradwell Bay, where the body of its owner still lies. It was a very emotional (admittedly tearful) experience for both Dick and I as we stood there, rings in hand.

Dick Wheeler was given the sorrowful task and distinct honor of writing to Bill Cramsie's parents after his loss was confirmed. In that letter, Dick spoke of his friend's heroism and dedication to duty, honor and country. He mentioned how professional Bill was and how talented and well-liked he was by all who knew him. More than sixty years after that letter was written, I listened to Dick Wheeler recount that praise with unfailing recall. It was inspiring, but even more than that it made me realize how fortunate I was to be standing there hearing his words in person. In that brief instant, as the two of us stood there mesmerized by these two rings, the years were gone and we might as well have been standing on the flight line at Wethersfield. I knew at that moment that something very powerful was at work within me.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

William Edward Cramsie

As a boy growing up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where his immigrant Irish grandfather was a pioneer in the gold rush days, Bill Cramsie dreamed of nothing but flying. His sole ambition was to become a West Point cadet and an Army Air Corps aviator. Through extraordinary effort and persistence, he achieved that goal. He graduated from West Point in the class of June 1943. Thrust into the fury of World War II, that class became the most highly decorated class in the history of the academy. Lt. Cramsie was assigned to the 416th Bomb Group and began flying combat missions out of England in the Spring of 1944. On April 10th, the day after Easter, his aircraft was badly damaged by flak while attacking a V-1 Buzz Bomb site in Flanders. Making three heroic passes over the target, and being hit on two of those passes, the aircraft could not be coaxed back across the English Channel. Bill and his two gunners perished as their A-20 Havoc crashed into the sea. He was the first member of the West Point class of June 1943 to be killed in action -- the “First to Fall”. His body was never recovered, but his spirit lives on through the metaphysical power of an amazing artifact. After 60 years, the class ring of Bill Cramsie mysteriously appeared and prompted a major effort to learn and tell his story -- a story that can finally lay his spirit to rest. The story of Bill Cramsie is a story of triumph and tragedy, of honor and humility. It is also the story of an incredible journey in our own time, the author’s search for this young man, and the strangely metaphysical aspects that led to a spiritual bonding of the present with the past.