Thursday, April 10, 2014

Seventy Years Later - Still Missing

On April 10, 1944—the day after Easter—1Lt William Edward Cramsie awoke before dawn and dressed in his flight suit for what were still very cold conditions at 12,000 feet with no cabin heater.  Following a quick breakfast and a mission briefing at the 416th Bomb Group operations center, a pre-fab Nissen Hut near the Wethersfield flight line, Bill caught a ride out to the hardstand in the back of a canvas covered weapons carrier.  The mood was light as this would be the first combat mission flown by the group since March 26th.  The A-20 Havoc crews were anxious to get back into the air.  They had been socked-in by miserable weather in England for two weeks and wanted to get back to business.  As the "taxi" dropped Bill off at an awesome new "G" model, he noted the tail number 39699 and wondered why they left off the 4?  Not that it really mattered.  The fuselage code "5C" for 671st Bomb Squadron and individual identifier "I" were more important.  Pilots and crews of the planes normally referred to their aircraft only by the last three digits anyway.  At "699", Bill met Staff Sergeants Charles Henshaw and Jack Steward.  They would be the turret and tunnel gunners flying with him on this mission—his fourth combat sortie.

The early enthusiasm was short lived.  As the flights approached France, bound for the V-1 launch site at Bois des Huit Rues, they were met with 10/10 cloud cover—solid overcast.  While Peter Royalty, the lead bombardier/navigator, searched fruitlessly for their assigned target the German anti-aircraft batteries with their radar controlled firing centers had no visual impediment.  Flak was intense as multiple passes over the target area gave the enemy ample opportunity to zero in on them.  The result was devastating.  Every ship in the formation sustained battle damage, three were lost.  Arthur Raines was the first to go down somewhere near Hazebrouck.  Bill's plane was hit on the first pass and lost an engine, but stayed with the formation for a second pass.  This required that the remaining engine be pushed to its limits in order to keep in position.  He was hit again on the second pass.  With the cloud cover abating somewhat to the north, the formation eventually bombed a target of opportunity about 18 miles northwest of its primary target.  As they headed back to England, Bill's West Point classmate and friend Scotty Street was also hit and lost an engine.  Both of them fell out of the formation and started losing altitude.  Lt. Street was able to make an emergency crash landing at RAF Bradwell Bay after his gunners bailed out.  Bill Cramsie was heard contacting the same field and receiving a bearing to base.  He never made it. 

And so began the first day of a seventy-year-long Homeric tale that has yet to see its final chapter.  Like Protesilaus, the first Greek killed in the Trojan War, Bill Cramsie was the first member of his West Point graduating class (June, 1943) to die in combat—the First to Fall.  The similarities are not merely poetic.  Protesilaus was a suitor of Helen, considered in Greek myth to be the most beautiful woman in the world.  At the academy, Bill met and fell in love with Dee Rogers.  The Irish reincarnation, without a doubt, of Helen. 
Protesilaus was from coastal Antron, a land described by Homer as "deep in grass".  Bill's grandfather came to America from county Antrim in Ireland, a land famous for its green Glens.  History did little to preserve the memory of Protesilaus or of Bill Cramsie, they both are remembered because of the irony and tragedy of their death and the remarkable endurance of their spirit.  At the British Museum in London is one of the few surviving representations of Protesilaus, a Roman stone torso.  Also in Britain, on the Wall of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery (Madingley), is engraved in stone one of the few public memorials to Bill Cramsie.

The search for Bill and his crew did not really begin until about three years ago when Ross Stewart,
at the time a Ministry of Defence Police inspector at Wethersfield, accepted the challenge of finding "699".  In studying the Missing Air Crew Report,  Individual Deceased Personnel Files, and other documents, the law enforcement training of Ross became an important asset.  He identified a transposition of numbers in the original reported position of Bill and crew.  What could only have been a last known position of one degree, 05 minutes longitude was formally recorded as one degree, 50 minutes.  The difference amounts to about 40 miles and placed "699" well into the North Sea instead of very close to land in Bradwell Bay.  Consequently, no search was initiated at the time.  This and other corroborating evidence would place the last known position of "699" on or near Buxey Sand, merely a few miles from the point on which the RAF base was located.  Two visits by Ross and local volunteers to this shallow sand bank have identified WWII aircraft wreckage, but have not been able to confirm any of it yet as that of an A-20 Havoc.

As we mark this 70th year since the loss of Bill and crew, we remain hopeful that new technologies and continued research will one day lead us to whatever remains of this heroic but virtually unheralded crew and will provide the long awaited and much deserved closure for all those who care.