The past few days have been fun, informative and poignant for me. We have had a house guest, Justice Sharon Lee of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Though I am a retired attorney, law was not the topic of discussion. Our thoughts and conversations centered on Smokey Stover Jr., a World War II B-17 bomber, German POW camp Stalag Luft IV and our fathers.
I’ve written before about my father, Charles Lee and Dr. Julian Boggess who were all POWs at Stalag Luft IV. Lee and my father were also crewmen together on Smokey Stover Jr. As Sharon and I talked about our fathers’ story and later with Joe Boggess and Jo Shumake (her father was at Stalag Luft III), words written by Peter Pitchlynn in 1847 came to mind. Pitchlynn in referring to Choctaw Warriors and Tennessee soldiers who guarded his father’s residence (located at Plymouth Bluff across the Tombigbee from present day Columbus) from attack during the 1813-1814 Creek Indian War wrote: “What brave noble fellows they were…among those who figured in those scenes how few are living.”
Justice Lee was here to present a program at Columbus Air Force Base for a Base Community Council luncheon. Her topic was how the life of her father had become intertwined with the lives of two men from Columbus over the wartime skies of Germany and in a German POW camp. The story she related was a story of heroism, brutality and perseverance.
S/Sgt Charles Lee and S/Sgt Rufus Ward, Sr were crew members of Smokey Stover Jr., a B-17 bomber of the 8th Air Force, 96th Bomb Group, 337th Sqd at Snetterton Heath Air field in England. Lee was the right waist gunner and my father was the tail gunner on the plane. They had both volunteered for service and after training in the U.S. arrived in England in April 1944. The average number of missions flown before being shot down was six while a tour of duty was 25 missions.
The crew of Smokey Stover Jr. was quickly thrown into the frying pan. Their first combat mission was on April 29th and was a mission to bomb railroad facilities in the center of Berlin. On that mission there were 615 American B-17s and B-25s which were met by an estimated 350 German fighter planes. Four missions in succession were, April 30th Clermond Ferrand Airfield, May 1st V weapons site at Metz, May 9th Juvincourt airfield, and May 11th the marshalling yards at Brussels. Then on May 12th there was a mission to Zwickau/Brux Czechoslovakia.
The mission to Zwickau would be Smokey Stover Jr.’s last flight. Over 800 American bombers attacked oil and industrial facilities deep in Germany and in Czechoslovakia. They were met by over 430 German fighter planes which shot down 46 American bombers. On that mission 26 B-17 from Setterton Heath took off. Two were forced to return because of mechanical problems (not uncommon on often shot up aircraft) and 24 proceeded into Germany. Of those 24, 12 were shot down including Smokey Stover Jr which was flying in “the tail end Charlie” slot of what was known as “purple heart corner”. Lee and Ward had been shot down on their 6th mission, the average survival period for an aircraft. They both escaped the burning bomber with my father assisting Lee with his parachute and exited from the out-of-control plane,
My father and Sharon’s father were captured and sent to Stalag Luft IV where Lt. Julian Boggess was one of the camp doctors. Dr. Boggess had been captured in North Africa when German troops had broken through American lines. A field hospital was in the path of the advancing Germans, but Dr. Boggess refused to abandon the wounded men he was caring for and was captured with them. He later, at a risk to his own life, pressed guards in Stalag Luft IV to provide more humane conditions for the POWs there. Upon their liberation — Ward on April 26 and Lee on May 13, 1945 — their physical condition said it all. Lee stood 6 foot 3 inches and weighted 90 pounds while Ward at five foot 10 inches weighted 91 pounds. It was a story presented by Justice Lee of heroism, brutality, perseverance and three American heroes. It is a story that could be told of many members of the Greatest Generation.
After a Thursday night gathering at J Broussard’s restaurant we reflected on the experiences of our fathers and other members of the Greatest Generation. We thought of how the officers and airmen of Columbus Air Force Base and service men and women around the world have continued that same tradition of excellence, selfless service, sacrifice and commitment to our Country. We owe them and all veterans a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.