This Thursday marks Veterans Day. I have been blessed to have grown up as a child surrounded by relatives who were veterans of not only World War II, but also World War I and the Spanish-American War. Close friends have served everywhere from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who have served in the military have risked and often given their lives so that this country can be free. We owe them a debt we can never repay.
History that is unrecorded is lost, and the stories and accounts of our family and friends who are veterans are a priceless heritage that cries out to be saved. One thing that we can do is to record and preserve their stories.
My father was a tail gunner on a B-17 bomber during World War II. He was shot down near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1944 and spent a year as a German POW. He would talk very little about his experiences. I recall going to see the movie “The Memphis Belle” with him and his commenting that the combat scenes in the movie were unbelievably accurate and that the writers must have talked to someone from his crew. Except for that and some funny stories about American airmen adjusting to life in England, he did not mention much.
Shortly after my father died, a letter appeared in the 96th Bomb Group Historical Association newsletter. It had been written by a member of my father”s squadron and described what happened when my father was shot down. That letter, an article in American Ex POW magazine, and the 96th Bomb Group”s history told the story.
On May 12, 1944, Staff Sgt. Rufus Ward Sr. was the tail gunner on Smokey Stover Jr., a B-17 from the 337th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group based at Snetterton Heath, England. That day near Frankfurt, the squadron was attacked by more than 60 German fighters and Smokey Stover Jr. was heavily damaged with its left wing almost shot away and two engines set on fire.
Communications had been cut to the tail and Ward did not hear the pilot”s orders to bail out. Still firing his .50-caliber guns at a German fighter, he suddenly saw his pilot and co-pilot parachute past his window. As Ward was about to bail out he discovered the waist gunner and the ball turret gunner lying wounded on the catwalk. He went and assisted each of them with their parachutes and helped them out of the aircraft before he bailed out. All survived and became prisoners of war.
Twelve of the 26 aircraft from Snetterton on the May 12 mission were shot down. Ten aircraft had been lost on a bombing mission on May 8. In that five-day period the air base at Snetterton had lost half of its aircraft and crews. The life/capture expectancy of an air crewman was six missions, and my father had been on his sixth mission.
We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude that we can never repay but that should not keep us from trying. There are untold stories of heroism and sacrifice across this region that need to be preserved and told. If we don”t do it they will be forever lost.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.