Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Project 9699 in the News

The current issue of British Ministry of Defence Police magazine "Talk Through" has a wonderful centerfold article by Chief Inspector Ross Stewart about Project 9699, the search for 671st Bomb Sq. pilot William Edward Cramsie and crew lost in Bradwell Bay, England on 10 April 1944.  Click on the link below to download a pdf file of the issue and then scroll to pages 17 through 19.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Carving Up the Promise

Those who are offended by political statements should stop reading here and go to a more comfortable place in cyberspace.  What I am going to discuss is political and may offend some readers.

As a Life Member of the Military Officers Association of America, I keep up to date on military issues through the organization's monthly magazine and its website.  In the December 2011 issue of Military Officer, one will find an article titled "Et Tu, SASC?  This headline caught my attention immediately, being that I have long been a student of Roman history.  It is a play on the last words of Julius Caesar as he was assassinated at the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC, "Et tu Brute" or "you too Brutus?".  It was a statement that would become immortal as a synonym for betrayal as Brutus thrust his dagger into the withering body of Caesar.  Why would the MOAA head their discussion of military health issues with such a graphic and volatile reference?  Perhaps because the situation demanded it.

The managers of our trust, the government of the United States of America, have failed pitifully and have squandered the tremendous gift that "the greatest generation" gave to us — a nation virtually independent of foreign influence.  Today, we are becoming mere pawns on the world stage being sucked dry of our vastly accumulated wealth through a sea of errant thinking and mismanagement.  We have become a reactive nation rather than a noble leader in virtually all areas other than military.  We still possess the most effective fighting force the world has ever seen—what a shame that our diplomatic and economic skills are not up to that level.  The former Captains of Industry are seen as plunderers in the New World Order and it's a blessing to them that they all died long ago.  Most of their profit making ventures have been driven offshore by a national mentality where consumption trumps production, legitimate profit is assailed as social corruption and incentives to work are replaced by incentives not to work.  Those of us still dealing in Horatio Alger fashion with the idiocy of life simply get to stand by and watch our legacy vanish through self indulgence in the name of egalitarianism.

The socialistic largesse of government has buried us so far in debt that the wolves are at the door baying for lunch, and that is what the MOAA article is all about.  It is a synopsis of Washington infighting over the military budget and nothing is so sacred these days as to escape being offered as a sacrificial cow to the gods of finance.  One of the most sacred promises that the U.S. Government made to all career military personnel was a retirement system that promised health care for life.  There were no caveates or warnings that this was a tentative offer, it was an outright promise that the sort of health care that we received while on active duty would be provided for us in our retirement years.  Now, the Senate Armed Services Committee is playing the part of Brutus, standing in the Senate hall with a dagger about to draw blood from an old friend and indeed its mentor.  The committee is recommending that the military retirement system should be more like civilian retirement plans—in particular concerning healthcare.  Of course everyone knows what great shape the civilian retirement health care plans are in.

That train wreck notwithstanding, it might seem that this would be an improvement over the current Tri-Care system.  Tri-Care is so pathetic in its ratio of approved payments versus billed services that a frightening number of health care providers will not accept Tri-Care patients.  For those living in rural America, the nearest provider that accepts Tri-Care may be hours away from where one lives and choice is a pipe dream.  One is lucky to have coverage at all.  I actually wrote to one of my Senators about this problem and it was forwarded to the Pentagon's chief of health care services.  Springfield, Missouri is the nearest large city to our home (90 miles) and there are three major hospitals there.  All three have rejected Tri-Care coverage.  The letter I received in reply from the Pentagon was a curt admonition to stop complaining.  No great surprise I suppose.

Unfortunately, the net result of the Senate committee recommendation would be added cost to the military member and a further erosion of the promise.  It gets even worse when a retired military member turns 65.   Part of my military retirement package was medical care for life for myself and for my spouse during my lifetime.  The provider was "Tri-Care".  Over time, the government added a provision that when a retiree turns 65, the primary provider shifts from Tri-Care to Medicare.  That didn't seem so bad, since the coverage was similar, but they also started deducting nearly $100 per month from my Social Security check to pay for the Medicare premium.  So much for the free medical promise.  Now, they are raising the per month fee over the next couple years to some uncertain level (but certainly more).  While the actual premium that will be paid in 2014 is a matter of debate, and will undoubtedly be less than the $247 claimed by ultra-conservatives, there is little doubt that I will be paying more per year for my "free" medical coverage and we will soon have to pay double that per year to retain coverage on my spouse who currently is free under my retirement plan.  And, we have no choice in the matter -- the switch from Tri-Care to Medicare is mandatory.  That, in my estimation, is a broken promise.  This may seem like sour grapes, but all the years that I served in the military they factored in my retirement health care benefit as a part of my total compensation and paid me less because of it.  In other words, they treated it like cash in my pocket.  Now they are stealing the cash that I worked for and banked as retirement compensation. 

As military retirees were nostalgically carving Turkey this week in Thanksgiving, our elected officials were busy carving up the promises made decades ago.  In that light, how can any of us really have faith in the promises made today?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

God Bless John Culberson

John Culberson
An editorial in the Washington Post of October 28 caught my eye with the headline: "Veterans allowed to rest in peace."  At first, I thought it was a story about repatriation of recently recovered remains of veterans lost during combat.  There are thousands of these cases still being worked by the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), including the case on William Edward Cramsie.  But, no, this was about something even more head-turning.  It really is a little mind numbing and heart warming at the same time.

A couple months back, I received an email forwarded from a friend.  It was a report about the Obama Administration forbidding prayer and other religious references at VA Cemetery services.  Not only that, there were reports of veteran groups like VFW and American Legion getting hassled by a VA Cemetery manager and threatened with expulsion for using a reference to God in what they said during presentations to a widow.  I thought this so bizarre that I immediately put it in the category of skinhead propaganda and hit the delete button.  When I realized that this Post editorial was about that very topic, I was shocked back to reality.  I know that the Post is sometimes a bit biased, though in my personal view with some justification, but I could not believe that they would have bought into something like this without confirmation.

As I read on, it became obvious that the story was true.  Now, I'm not saying that I believe everything that I read in the media, I'm just a tad less gullible than that.  What sealed the veracity for me was the report of John Culberson's involvement.  I happen to know and trust Mr. Culberson through my work with a non-profit advocacy group.  Representative Culberson (TX-7) has helped us on many occasions and is one of an honored few who have been recognized with our highest "Friend" award.  That aside, I read with considerable interest how he jousted with the Administration to change VA policy back to the sane traditional path that it had followed for as far back as my memory reaches, and that's getting to be a far reach.  I won't go into the details because the Post article is linked above and all can read it for themselves.  However, I did want to say here that its refreshing when a legislator has the will to engage and the audacity to demand redress of government excess.  This was not about religion it was about liberty.  We have become far too PC in America and are throwing out the baby with the bath water.  I wish we had more leaders who respect and tolerate personal rights and freedoms and less who insist on defining and enforcing a uniform code of existence.

God Bless John Culberson!

Monday, May 30, 2011

In Memory - an Archive

Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to report the growth of an activity that honors the service of those who served and those who died serving during WWII.  Two years ago, at the 416th Bomb Group reunion in Branson, Missouri, a topic arose that had been on the minds of many veterans and their kin in recent years.  The tangible links that many of us who served keep squirreled away in a chest (personnel records, photos, military orders and the like) tend to disappear at the end of our tenure here.  To those who hold these sorts of items dear, it is a tragedy.  We find it hard to imagine that a younger generation might not find some or all of these remembrances important enough to preserve.  Yet, every day, somewhere in America, history is destroyed in a burn barrel along with the kitchen trash. As a nation, we go to great lengths to preserve the smallest of objects from antiquity, but seem oblivious to the monumental importance of objects nearer to us in time.

Shortly after that 2009 reunion, I was copied on an email from a veteran's spouse that went out to several of the organizers of the very informal 416th Bomb Group Association.  The message reinforced what had been discussed earlier.  This spouse had numerous records and photos that belonged to her husband, a member of the 416th Headquarters staff from the earliest days to the end of the war.  There apparently was marginal interest in this material among the surviving family members and it needed to be cleared to make space in a downsizing operation.  After a round of email exchanges, I rather reluctantly volunteered to serve as a repository for this information until a suitable permanent home could be identified.  It was a selection pool of one.  Thus was born the 416th Bomb Group Archive and the loosely defined title "Archivist".

Since that day, the amount of information about the 416th Bomb Group that has come to light has been absolutely staggering.  The discovery and sharing of the personal photo collection of Capt. Francis J. Cachat, the 416th photographer, has added well over 900 hitherto unknown photographs of 416th personnel and equipment.  A windfall of data was added to the Archive through the thoughtfulness of an Air Force Historical Research Agency employee who made digital copies of wartime 416th records available.  Also enriching the Archive were donations of material from several veterans and/or their families.  This latter group shed considerable light on the history of squadron and group reunions dating back to 1946.

In addition to the preservation of primary sources, the Archive includes significant research tools.  Among the most important of these is the 416th.com website, which has been very greatly expanded and is growing almost daily due to the dedicated effort of Rick Prucha, the son of a 416th pilot.  Relational databases have also been created to record details of unit personnel (currently recording 2,460 officers and enlisted members) and 310 unit aircraft (181 A-20s and 129 A-26s to date).  Both of these databases continue to grow as additional records or photos are analyzed and new verifiable information becomes available.

New Home of the 416th Bomb Group Archive
The primary purpose of any archive is to safely store material for research.  Obviously, that means a place to store and a place to work.  An opportunity recently presented itself for my wife Doris and I to purchase what was formerly the Gainesville, Missouri City Hall.  It's an historic WPA building built in 1935 as a Community Center just off the town square.  Gainesville is nestled in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks, about 50 miles east of Branson, MO.  Our intention is to restore the building to something approximating its original state.  A dedicated area within this building will house the 416th Archive.  Also within the building will be a library and educational center for the study of historical objects from an earlier era.

Eventually, the Archive will need a permanent home.  With limited and shrinking budgets (and staff), the academic repositories that once would have been likely candidates are overwhelmed by the amount of material that has emerged as WWII veterans are leaving us at an accelerating pace.  By holding, organizing and preserving this information about the 416th, one small but important unit in the great war effort of almost 70 years ago, we can improve the viability of this archive complementing that of a more enduring institution in years to come.

416th veterans, family, or friends with items to donate or copies to share may telephone 417-499-9831 or write to Wayne G. Sayles, 416th Bomb Group Archive, P.O. Box 911, Gainesville, MO 65655

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wethersfield Revisited

Yesterday, I wrote about our trip to Ballymoney, the ancestral home of Bill Cramsie.   During this ten-day trip to Ireland, we took a couple days to fly over to Wethersfield, Essex, where Bill had been stationed at the time of his death.  I had been to Wethersfield in March of 2010 and wrote about that visit here.  Thanks to the perceptive intuition of Sally Stewart, one of the employees that I met in the site Administration building, I was able also to meet her husband Ross who is a Chief Inspector in the Ministry of Defense Police (MDP) at this base.  Ross has been studying the history and evolution of the base for many years.  He subsequently purchased a copy of First to Fall on Amazon.com and we became well acquainted through a regular flow of emails. 

The reason for the visit this year was to meet with Ross and discuss progress on a project that he is shepherding.  During my visit last year, I left a copy of First to Fall with the personal secretary to the facility commander.  The book caught the attention of MDP senior management and before long Ross was tasked to conduct a feasibility study into the possibility of finding and, if possible, recovering 43-9699 and its crew.  One of the first tasks under this order was to brief the US Air Force contingent in Britain, as well as teleconferenced individuals at the Pentagon.  This was done with aplomb and before long the Department of Defense showed active interest in the project that Ross had dubbed "9699".  Meanwhile, Ross selected a small team of interested staff to gather and evaluate data related to the mission of April 10, 1944.  I was fortunate to meet two additional team members during this visit.

During the past five months, I've been in close touch with the "9699" team at Wethersfield and have assisted whenever possible by searching for and studying available mission records and related facts that may shed light on the precise location where Bill Cramsie's plane went down.   It has been an exciting time and I was delighted by the opportunity to see Ross again and to expand my personal knowledge of the base.  As guests of Ross and Sally Stewart, Doris and I were allowed to stay in former military quarters on the base.  From our window, we could see the bronze 416th Bomb Group plaque that Frank Basford had installed adjacent to the chapel many years ago.   

The MDP at Wethersfield made Doris and I feel like very special guests and the personal attention paid to us by the Stewart family was absolutely extraordinary.  Through their kind hospitality, we were able to meet their daughter Sarah, just days after presenting Ross and Sally with their first grandchild.  We also were able to spend a little time with Richard and Susan Clubley of Church Hill House at Wethersfield, friends with whom I stayed during the 2010 visit.  

Doris Sayles, Ross Stewart, Wayne Sayles, Sally Stewart

With the help of Ross, who is intimately familiar with the buildings, roads, and structures on the base, I became much better acquainted with the nature of this facility during WWII.  We visited the area where the 671st Bomb Squadron was quartered and marveled at the way nature has reclaimed that piece of land in the past 67 years.  All that remains of the once booming compound are a series of air raid shelters, some concrete foundations for Nissen Huts and the remnants of communal toilets/showers.  The interconnecting concrete sidewalks also remain.  

Air Raid Shelter in the 671st Bomb Sq. quarters area remains intact

In the 668th squadron quarters area, there are still a few Nissen Huts standing.  There are also several buildings near the flight line that were in use during the 416th tenure at Wethersfield.

Surviving Nissen Hut in the 668th Bomb Sq. living area

The trip to Wethersfield was a great success and I'm pleased to report that "Project 9699" is very much alive and well, with a strong commitment on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Visit to Ballymoney

On May 6, 2011 my wife Doris and I visited Ballymoney, Country Antrim, Ireland the ancestral home of William Edward Cramsie.  Ballymoney, in the Irish tongue, means city by the marsh.  It's a small and quaint but bustling little village in the north of Ireland about a one hour train ride northwest from Belfast.  Ballymoney rests within one of the famous Glens of Antrim.  A Glen, we learned, is a long valley that leads all the way to the sea.  The scenery and atmosphere are remarkable.

Our primary purpose in this visit was to determine if any relatives of Bill Cramsie might be interred at this place where his grandfather was born.  The first and most important clue was that the family was Irish Catholic, which is not the dominant persuasion in Ulster now and was not during the lifetime of Bill's grandfather and great grandfather.  In fact, there was at that time a Protestant branch of the Cramsie family living in Ballymoney as well.  There is, however, in this place a Roman Catholic Church with deep roots.  It is the church of Our Lady and St. Patrick. Adjacent to the church is a cemetery divided into three parts, mostly by chronology.  Within the oldest of these sections we located the graves of what we feel must be at least three members of Bill Cramsie's family.

When we arrived at the train station in Ballymoney, we asked if there was a civic information center.  It turns out that there is and it is also the home of a local museum, which we enjoyed very much.   The local historical society shares space in this building and the keeper kindly unlocked the cabinets with genealogical information.  We perused the many documents there with great interest.

Locating the Roman Catholic Church was relatively easy and it took only minutes for us to review all of the marked graves in the old section.  We located one grave belonging to a Patrick Cramsie who died in 1832 at age 57.  This same stone mentions an Edward Cramsie who died in 1886 at the age of 60 years.  This Edward would have been from the same generation as William Cramsie the grandfather of Bill.

Immediately adjacent to that grave was one of a John Cramsie who died in 1884 at the age of 84 years.  The headstone also mentions his son Edward (different from above) who was born in 1860.  It seems likely that this John Cramsie was perhaps an uncle to the William Cramsie who migrated to the gold fields of California in the 1850s

Yet a third stone mentions another member of the Cramsie family named John, who was apparently married to an Isabella McNeill.  The names Patrick, Edward and John are very common within Bill Cramsie's family and coupled with the Roman Catholic connection, there would seem to be little doubt that these are the graves of relatives.

The West Point ring of Bill Cramsie made this journey with us and I couldn't resist the impulse to introduce Bill to these early Ballymoney relatives.  The ring has always accompanied me on all of the related excursions from 416th Bomb Group reunions to New York, to West Point to Wethersfield and now to Ireland and many other places along the way.

The church of Our Lady and St. Patrick is currently undergoing extensive renovation and is surrounded by scaffolding.  It is a beautiful church in an idyllic rural setting—a fitting resting place and a direct link to the past.  In the foreground here are the first two headstones mentioned above.

This phase of our trip was all that it could possibly have been.  But that is not all of the story.  We flew from Ireland to the RAF Wethersfield base (now MOD Police) for a brief visit and I will share some aspects of that interesting visit soon.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bill Cramsie Day

April 10, 1944 was perhaps not exceptional in the wider course of human events, but it was a day of huge loss and great tragedy for the 416th Bomb Group.  What should have been a routine mission to wipe out a V-1 Buzz Bomb site in northern France turned into a nightmare for the 36 ships and crews that participated.  Two crews were lost and never recovered.  Their names are engraved on the Wall of the Missing at Madingley Cemetery (the American Battlefield Monuments Commission cemetery near Cambridge, England).

1/Lt William E. Cramsie
S/Sgt Charles R. Henshaw
S/Sgt Jack Steward

1/Lt Arthur A. Raines
S/Sgt Glenn J. Bender
S/Sgt Jack O. Nielson

Virtually every A-20 Havoc participating in that mission received battle damage due to the intense flak encountered in three deadly passes over the target at Bois des Huit Rues.

Bill Cramsie is of course the subject of this blog and of the biography First to Fall.  I have no doubt in my mind that he would object to being singled out for distinction today.  Every comment that I have ever read or heard about Bill reveals a person of genuine humility and loyalty.  He was also a person of intense dedication with a strong sense of duty.

Recently, I received a photograph from Francis J. Cachat that I'm pleased to share here.  Fran was the 416th Bomb Group photographer at RAF Wethersfield during the time that Bill was there.  Easter fell on the 9th of April in 1944 and Fran photographed Easter Mass at the Catholic Chapel on base.  Like many of the buildings of that period, the chapel was a large Nissen shelter, known commonly to Americans as a "Quonset Hut".  In Fran's photo, Bill Cramsie kneels before the altar receiving communion from Chaplain Penticoff.  It seems a fitting prelude for this devout Irish Catholic's impending trials only a day later.

Today, it is fitting that we remember the life and devotion of William Edward Cramsie and those fellow members of the 416th that fell victim to the guns of Bois des Huit Rues.  It is a very small act on our part to recognize the sacrifice that they and their families made in the cause of a free world.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Francis DeMand 89th Birthday Remembered

March 19, 2011 marked the 89th birthday of Lt. Francis DeMand, 671st Bomb Sq. pilot.  The Kansas born aviator was killed in action on 29 Sep 44 and is buried at the American Battlefield Monuments Commission cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands.  Local resident Ron Wintjens has formally adopted the grave of DeMand and honors his memory on special occasions with a personal visit and placement of flowers on the airman's grave.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spiritual Heirs

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds...and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of...wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space...
...put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.  1922-1941

Norma R. Downing  1922-2010

On New Year's Eve of 2010, Norma Raley Downing left this temporal world and returned to the eternal abode from whence she came.  The words above were written by a young pilot, describing an ethereal experience in "High Flight", but they could just as well be describing the spirit of Norma Downing who experienced more in her lifetime than most of us could ever imagine. 

Norma Raley met Wayne Downing in southern England during World War II.  She was a nurse with the 298th General Hospital, he was an A-20 Attack Bomber pilot with the 2911th Bomb Squadron.  Their courtship was far from ordinary.  Wayne was transferred to the 416th Bomb Squadron in the early Spring of 1944, making visits complicated, but manageable with some creative maneuvering.  Shortly after D-Day, Norma was transferred to France while Wayne continued to fly out of Wethersfield in Essex.  They received permission from higher headquarters and were wed at Cherbourg in the Fall of 1944 after the 416th had transferred to Melun-Villaroche near Paris.  As the front was pushed eastward, Norma was transferred to a hospital in Liege, Belgium treating casualties from the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhineland campaign.  When Wayne's 65 mission quota had been reached, he volunteered to continue flying combat missions so that he could be nearer to Norma.  How he managed to visit her in Liege is a story for another day.  Where their lives took them from then to now is really a book in itself.

The story of Wayne and Norma Downing is a classic love story and an inspiration to the generations that follow them.  In a recent email referring to the couple, Ron Wintjens wrote: "They were both witnesses and active players in an important part of our history. Every time a veteran passes away, we, the next generation, become the spiritual heir of their experiences and memories. Younger people should realize this." 

There is a lot of truth in that profound statement.