Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Today, we gather with family and friends in virtually every point of the compass and enjoy and enjoy the benefits of a free society.  It's a time of peace and harmony that we often take for granted, but should well remember that there were times when such was not the case.  Christmas day 1944 was a tragic day for the 416th Bomb Group with several planes and crews lost on the morning mission to Munstereifel, Germany and the afternoon mission to Hillsheim.  Unlike the much heralded Christmas Truce of WWI, the battle raged on in Europe during those hard days when the Battle of the Bulge called for every possible resource and a full commitment.

Mission #177 - Hillsheim, Germany - 25 Dec 44

After two frustrating weeks of bad weather, the air power of the allies was finally brought to bear and helped stem the tide of a major German offensive.  As we enjoy Christmas 2010, we should pause for a moment to reflect on what Christmas 1944 must have been like for the men on the ground and in the air with our armed forces at that time.  Merry Christmas to all - compliments of the 416th Bomb Group.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran's Day 2010

Here it is 2010 and that special day for honoring our nation's military veterans is upon us.  I remember that during my first five or six years of grade school we celebrated Armistice Day on November 11.  Usually, some simple flag ceremony, sometimes accompanied by a middle-aged gentleman or two from the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, was conducted at 11 AM.  To help make the occasion special to a fourth-grader, there was a distribution of candies and a patriotic pin to wear on our collar or sticker to place on our lunch box. We were taught that this was a celebration of the peace in 1918 that ended a horrific World War and a time to honor those American servicemen and women who had served in that war.  Today, none of those middle-aged gentlemen are with us and the young school boy that was inspired by this tribute has himself left middle-age in the dust.

In 1954, Congress extended the recognition to all who had served in the military during time of war and renamed the occasion "Veteran's Day".  In practice, this day has come to be celebrated in honor of all veterans, whether they served during time of war or not.  In truth, one could hardly have served in the U.S. Military after December 7, 1941 and not have been in some state of war, either hot or cold.  Now, we are sadly but proudly paying our respects to the dwindling number of veterans who served during World War II.  Much has been written about their heroic crusade, and with just cause. 

 416th Bomb Group veterans at the 2010 Reunion
(left to right, seated: Carl Weinert, John Freese, Bob Kehres, 
Billy Brewer, Dan Eastman.  
Standing: Jack Sittarich, Wayne Downing, Ralph Conte, Roy Burns, 
Roland Dullnig, Bob Basnett.)

My personal involvement with the 416th Bomb Group, through the silent but forceful urging of William Edward Cramsie, has made me all too aware of the fact that we are mortal creatures.  With our passing from this existence, we become part of that great tapestry of human accomplishment and evolution.  It won't be long and Cold War veterans will be taking their final salute.

As I sit here today and reminisce, I wonder what Bill Cramsie was doing 70 years ago as a plebe at West Point.  November 11, 1940 fell on a Monday.  The day was declared by Public Law in 1938 to be a legal holiday.  Therefore, the cadets were likely on a relaxed schedule—something rather scarce for a plebe.  The weather was ominous as a storm of hurricane proportions swept the Great Lakes.  That afternoon, five vessels and 66 lives were lost in Lake Michigan alone during one of the worst  storms in recorded history.  In all, 154 deaths were blamed on the storm.  The Battle of Britain had ended, at least in official releases, and the British were carrying the battle to German and Italian cities.  It must have seemed fairly obvious that the United States would soon enter the war.  Little did the plebes of that year know that their program of studies would be reduced to three years and they soon would be personally engaged in that war.  

There has been great bi-partisan support for this veteran's tribute since its inauguration.  Honoring veterans is one of the few things that all Americans seem to agree on.  As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg some 150 years ago, "It is only fitting and proper that we do this."  At many of the Branson, Missouri entertainment events throughout the year, there are tributes to veterans.  It is always impressive to see how many men and women proudly stand with their brethren to be recognized.  The contributions of the American armed forces to our way of life are rarely overlooked or taken for granted, and that's as it should be.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More from Ron Wintjens on Francis De Mand Grave

In an earlier post, I shared an email from Ron Wintjens of the Netherlands -- a private citizen who adopted the grave of 671st Bomb Squadron pilot Francis De Mand at Margraten cemetery, also known as Netherlands American Cemetery.  In response, I asked Ron how he came to be interested particularly in Lt. De Mand.  Here is his touching reply:

"I've been to the cemetery this weekend for placing some flowers on the grave, because of the 29th of September, the day Francis died.  ASAP I'll take the pictures you've asked for. It's no problem for me to take these pictures. If it's possible I'll take them on a sunny day.
As to your last question, I can only say that I've been always interested in WWII, I've been several times to Normandy (with my dad) and I thought of it as my duty to adopt a grave. Also my daughter (now 11 yrs) got interested and said a few years ago she would carry on with this adoption if I couldn't take care anymore for the grave. Thus the future of our grave is secured and the tradition will live on. So we will not forget!

I knew from the Dutch employee at the cemetery, that USAF records were easy to get from the administration in the US. So I asked for an airman. In those days you could choose a grave, because the fist generation adoptants were on the threshold of extinction, so to say,  and there were several adoptants who didn't have a successor or died without taking notice of this matter. Nowadays, there's a waiting list for an adoption grave.
It's beautiful every time I see the white crosses perfectly lined up. Walking up the cemetery a strange melancholic wearyness and sadness takes part of me. I can't help it. Every time I feel the same feeling. I think it is special.  I go to Francis' grave and put the flowers in front of the white cross, say a few prayers and leaving the cemetary I sit down for a few minutes in the chapel with it's beautiful inscriptions on the walls.  It's a pity that the rush of life nowadays, prevents me from spending more time on searching for more information, networking and maybe making contact with relatives of one of these boys.
I'm glad I came across this mail and that I took some time to mail to you (should have done this right from the start!). Feels good!

Grtz Ron Wintjens

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Family Affair

The survivors of World War II who served with the 416th Bomb Group have remained in close contact over the past 65 years and still convene annually to renew their camaraderie and visit with their ever growing family.  Although the number of veterans is diminishing all too quickly, the number of attendees at the Group reunions over the past five years has remained fairly constant.  This is due mainly to the growth of families and their intense loyalty to the patrons whom all hold in great respect and a little awe.  All of the veterans from the previous year's reunion returned this year to Branson, with the sad exception of Dick Wheeler, who passed away last December.  Joining the group this year were Ralph Conte and Dan Eastman with members of their families.

The 2010 reunion of the 416th was held at Branson, Missouri from September 8 to September 12.  Eleven veterans of this unit were present, with an overall attendance of 56 including travelers from California to Connecticut and one son of a 416th pilot who stopped over on the way to his new post in Hong Kong.  The ages ranged from two-years-old to "almost" 95-years-old and it was hard to tell at times whether the youngsters or the old-timers were having the most fun.  In addition to the traditional banquet on Saturday evening, the group enjoyed a dinner show Friday night at the Starlite Theater with Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers performing.  A then-and-now video clip of the veterans was included in the show as a special tribute to the 416th.  That clip, updated slightly, is included here and is posted on YouTube at:

In order of appearance in the video are Billy Brewer (NC), Roland Dullnig (TX), Roy Burns (MO), Carl Weinert (AZ), Jack Sittarich (ND), Bob Basnett (MO), Bob Kehres (AR), Wayne Downing (CA), Ralph Conte (MO), John Freese (IL) and Dan Eastman (UT).

Saturday, May 29, 2010


This Memorial Day I'm thankful to all who gave their lives in defense of our way of life, but in particular to William Edward Cramsie who's spirit has taken me to places I could not have imagined five years ago. I wrote recently about my visit to Cambridge American Cemetery and the solemnity of that beautiful resting place. The closest I could get to Bill Cramsie was to touch his name inscribed on the Wall of the Missing. Six others of the 416th Bomb Group are still interred in that hallowed ground. Fifty former members of the 416th are either interred or memorialized on Walls of the Missing at eight different American Battle Monuments Commission cemeteries in Europe. Many of those lost during the war were temporarily interred and transferred to burial sites in the U.S. after the war. George Steed, also mentioned recently in this blog, was one of those. The native Virginian now rests near home in Arlington Cemetery.
One of the many "connections" that my encounter with Bill Cramsie produced was with the 416th Bomb Group itself. For reasons that will likely never be explained adequately, I have been drawn to this group of men as if I were a part of their experience. Of course, I was not, but their spirit touches me almost every day in some mysterious way. Just today, I received an email from a man in The Netherlands, Ron Wintjens, who cares very much about these same people and about one in particular. Ron's email came to me completely unexpected and I have no idea how or why he chose to write to me. Rather than summarize, I'll post his words here precisely as they were received:

"Dear Sir,
My name is Ron Wintjens and I'm from the Netherlands. Since several years I take care of the grave of one of the pilots of 416th bomber group: 1Lnt. Francis W. Demand. After he got killed nearby J├╝lich (Germany) 29th of september 1944, he is burried at the American War Cemetary at Margraten in the south of the Netherlands.
I know he had only one sister, who was married at that time with a businessman. Because of his young age (22) Francis had no wife and kids. Every special occassion I put flowers on his grave and say a short prayer, but I sometimes feel I should undertake more action. Maybe there are veterans who knew Francis or even flew with him. Maybe one of these veterans want to get in touch with me or have a simple request. Maybe one of these guys know relatives of Francis and maybe they are interested in getting in touch with me. No obligations, but maybe I can do someone a favor. I'll keep on taking care for his grave. It's an Honor and I'm glad that I've the opportunity to do something, however small, back.

Greetings Ron Wintjens"

I can't think of anything that could have touched me more on this Memorial Day than this email straight from the heart of someone who still remembers the sacrifice of one 416th member more than 65 years ago and takes the time to honor their memory. The Netherlands American Cemetery is today the resting place of more than 8,300 Americans including Lt. Francis DeMand, a pilot who flew with Bill Cramsie in the 671st Bomb Squadron.

One can only wonder how many people like Ron Wintjens still honor these 416th war heroes. I know of a few. In addition to the touching story above, a simple private memorial within a wooded area, at the site where George Steed died, is still maintained by a local French citizen. Residents near the site in Belgium where Rooney, Anderson and most of their crew died have either erected or plan to erect a small monument at that place. I'd be pleased to hear of other personal memorials to 416th members that readers here might know of.

Thanks to Missouriman4 whose touching video tribute to Arlington is linked above. The other two links are to videos hosted by ABMC.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Arlington Cemetery

It was a cool clear afternoon in early May as I trekked camera and tripod in hand through the thousands of graves at Arlington Cemetery searching for two particular headstones. The first was relatively recent, that of Brigadier General William J. Meng. Then Major Meng flew 50 combat missions as Commander of the 670th Bomb Squadron of the 416th Bomb Group. He joined the group at Lake Charles, LA and was one of the few pilots who had flown the A-20 previously—having flown 250 missions (800 combat hours) in the Panama Canal Zone flying anti-submarine patrol. He led the second mission over Normandy on D-Day, earning a DFC and Purple Heart in that attack. During and after the war, he served in several assignments as air inspector or inspector general and commanded a SAC strategic reconnaissance wing. During his career he flew the A-20, A-26, B-17, B-29, B-50, RB-45, RB-47, KC-97, KC-135, B-52 and B-58 with more than 5,600 hours of flying time. He served in Korea and Vietnam as well. General Meng died on Feb 1, 2001 and is buried in Section 54, site 5213 at Arlington.

The second headstone that I sought was that of 1Lt. George Hubert Steed. Lt. Steed was flying A-26 tail number 41-39222 on the 416th Bomb Group's mission #200 to Nutterden-Crannenberg, Holland. On the return, Lt. Steed's A/C ran out of gas and crashed near Montgeron, France. Lt. Steed was killed in the crash and was buried near the crash site. In 1946 his body was exhumed and reinterred at Arlington Cemetery in Section 12, site 4630. A private memorial, maintained by a French citizen marks the crash site today. Sgt. Transhina, Steed's gunner was badly injured in the crash, but recovered and survived until 1994.

The cool breeze and wealth of large hardwoods for shade made my visit to Arlington a very relaxing and memorable event. There were several burials scheduled throughout the afternoon and a horse drawn funeral procession passed nearby during my search. I could hear the crisp yet lonely sound of a bugle playing taps off in the distance as I stood by the grave of George Steed. That always is a poignant moment. There may be other 416th members buried here, but the cemetery records are not digitized and cannot be searched by unit. All searches are manual by name and date of burial. Therefore, unless one knows of a burial in advance, there is no practical way to find burials from any particular military organization. I also was able to locate the bronze memorial plaque dedicated to the 416th, which sits along the walkway not far from the tomb of the unknown soldier. As a postscript to this visit, I learned last week while talking with Roy Burns, a veteran who has attended the past two reunions, that Roy was the armorer for Lt. Steed's aircraft.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


" The morning of 1 February 1944 was spent on a train cutting across the heart of England to a small town in East Anglia, Sybil and Castle Hedingham. At 1515 the men detrained and boarded trucks that were waiting to take them to an RAF station one mile north of Wethersfield, Station 170."

So begins the short but eventful record of the 416th Bomb Group's presence in England as recorded in the official Group History. Bill Cramsie was on that train, just as I sat in wonderment on a train from London as it sliced through pastoral Essex headed for the same destination 66 years later. I couldn't help but feel that the fields and venerable structures passing by in a blur were untouched by time. Indeed, Bill had occasion more than once to look out this same window during brief excursions from Braintree to London and back. The mesmerizing countryside today belies the seriousness and intensity of purpose that Bill knew in 1944, but that is precisely why his tenure there is meaningful. England, as we know it today, exists only because of people like Bill Cramsie—whether they be British, American, Canadian or other allies—who laid the foundation for the greatest assault by sea ever undertaken by man.

My stay at Wethersfield was short, as I had other business at hand, but it could not have been more memorable. By design, I stayed in two different Bed and Breakfast facilities. The day of arrival, I stayed with the Bryant family at the Upper Barns B&B on Hedingham Road. Ashley and Diana were perfect hosts and I had a most pleasant discussion in the great hall that evening about music with their son Tom, who is quite an accomplished songwriter.

Great Hall at Upper Barns

The building was built in AD 1590 and still retains much of the original structural material. I couldn't help wondering if Bill Cramsie had occasion to pass this way on a casual country walk from the airbase into the hamlet of Wethersfield, which is only a mile or two away as the crow flies. Diana helped me connect by telephone with the Ministry of Defense office at the base and confirm my visit for the following morning.

On Thursday morning, March 11th, Diana kindly drove me to the base and dropped off my travel bag at the Church Hill House, a 500-year-old guest house on High Street at the center of Wethersfield. It sits directly across the street from the St. Mary Magdalene parish church and it turns out that the Bryants and my new hosts Richard and Susan Clubley are actually close friends. The Clubleys were the most gracious hosts one could ask for and I enjoyed my time with them immensely. They arranged, through a friend, an introduction to the staff of the cemetery at Cambridge which proved helpful and invited me to attend a very interesting local historical society lecture at the village hall with them that night.

Church Hill House

I was received at the Wethersfield base by Ms. Ros Gourgey, who spent the entire morning giving me a very detailed tour of the base. The facility is currently occupied by the Ministry of Defense police and is primarily a training base for anti-terrorist tactics. The runways and taxiways, while still in surprisingly good shape, are not open to general aviation and are used only on occasion these days for glider training. A number of photos of the base, taken during WWII and since, are posted online at the 416th Bomb Group website. Many of the Nissan Hut buildings of WWII era were replaced during the USAF tenancy in the 1970s, but the occasional building from the earlier period still stands. The main hanger is intact and still in use today as a driver training center. A number of the original huts remain in the old bomb storage area and a few still remain within the old headquarters area and around the periphery of the base. A local historian, Ms. Judith Slater accompanied us on the tour and shared stories about past occupancy and incidents at the base. I had studied the base layout prior to my trip and was thrilled to find that we could drive on and around the runways and aircraft parking areas where the individual 416th squadrons were bivouacked. I felt a tightness in the pit of my stomach as we drove past the 671st Bomb Squadron area, now merely an open field with a fuel storage tank set on a concrete slab.

We visited the site of the old control tower, which was demolished only months before my visit. A group of local citizens had lobbied to preserve it, but to no avail. Standing inside the main aircraft hanger, a facility that looked like it might house six to eight A-20s at a time for major repairs, I was impressed with the massive steel structural supports—all of which, I was told, were shipped from the U.S. to Britain and assembled in the days when the 416th was training at Lake Charles and Laurel. The amount of logistical planning and execution in just this one effort of developing, equipping and sustaining the 416th must have been staggering, it's hard to fathom what the entire scope of the war effort required. The base chapel that existed during WWII is still standing at Wethersfield today and a 416th Bomb Group memorial plaque is affixed to the wall next to it.

After touring the base, we returned to the office where I was met by Ross Stewart, head of Information Management and Communications Systems. Ross is very interested in the early history of Wethersfield and shared several old maps of the facility with me, including some overlays he had done with the runway superimposed on old English maps. Everyone at the facility was extremely kind and hospitable to me and I can't thank them enough for their kindness. That afternoon, I visited the parish church in Wethersfield which, for a small village, is an imposing structure both architecturally and historically. Adjacent to the church is an old cemetery that would surely have many stories to tell. One can walk from one end of the village to the other in ten minutes or so. It's a lovely and quaint place set in a very rural environment.

On Friday morning, Richard drove me to Cambridge, where we visited the American Cemetery, known locally as Madingley Cemetery. It was a somber, overcast day but the rain held off long enough for me to video tape the graves of the six 416th members buried there and the names of those inscribed in the Wall of the Missing. Cemetery foreman Les Turner was a tremendous help, not only in locating the graves and inscriptions but in making them easy to photograph. Les carried a bucket of wet sand and a sponge and filled the engraved text with sand to make it more visible. He also made copies for me of the individual burial records of 416th personnel. A few clips from that visit are included in a short video that I put together.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Walking on the stones

I was born in March of 1943, as Bill Cramsie was anxiously anticipating graduation from West Point and moving on to his life's dream — flying. Amidst the complex weave of human experience, Bill's life and mine first crossed in 2005 and have crossed so many times since that I've lost count. In March of this year, the day after celebrating my own birthday, I'll board a jetliner for England where I'll have the opportunity to briefly visit the base at Wethersfield where Bill spent his last days.

Touching an object related to another person can sometimes evoke powerful and mysterious feelings. Whether it be a grandmother's locket or a father's wartime military uniform, the tactile connection is very real and often metaphysical. So it was with Bill Cramsie's class ring when I first held it in my hand. I had the same feeling a couple years later as I sat in a train northbound from New York City to West Point. With Bill Cramsie's ring in hand, I felt that we were actually companions on this journey that he had made many times.

I have little doubt that Wethersfield, with Bill's ring in hand, will be one of those "thin places" for me, where the barrier between the present and the past is vulnerable. I plan also to visit the American Cemetery at Cambridge, where Bill's name is inscribed on the Wall of the Missing. As I stood before a similar wall at the Veterans Museum in Branson, MO last September, I had a very calming flush of emotion—different in a way than those more anxious moments with the ring and with West Point. Bill Cramsie's name is inscribed at Branson among those of all U.S. veterans killed during WWII. In reality, it is one of thousands upon thousands and is rarely, if ever, noticed. But as Tom Rickels, the nephew of Bill Cramsie, and I stood together before that simple inscription, it felt as though a calling had somehow been fulfilled.

I had anticipated that the writing of First to Fall would be a final chapter for me in this extraordinary experience, but apparently not. The story continues to unfold and the opportunity to walk on the stones that Bill Cramsie walked on merely fanned the flame.

I'll report back after this visit.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

NRA Supporting America's Military

At the NRA Annual Meeting in 2009, Lt. Col. Oliver North presented a stirring tribute to the American soldier of today. At a time when many of the values of America are being questioned, nobody on the face of this earth can question the patriotism, strength and compassion of our men under arms. They carry on a proud and honorable tradition and do great credit to the memory of those who have served before them.

Clicking on the photo below will take you to the NRA video of this touching tribute.