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 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 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.