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:
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 Jülich (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
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.