Only God knows what really happened to Robert G. Campbell during the frantic moments after his B-17 was plucked from the skies over Merseburg by sharp-shooting Flak gunners.
His broken body was recovered from a river nine miles southwest of the Leuna oil refinery target and buried in an isolated grave in Muchein.
The mission was on November 2, 1944, a day that also recorded the downing of two other 398th crews - Herb Newman of the 603rd and Russell Reed of the 602nd. All aboard Reeds plane survived, but four on Newmans ship, including himself, met death after bailing out. This story at another time.
That Campbell, of the 601st, was a quality pilot and highly respected by his crew and fellow pilots, was a known fact.
That Campbell was liked and respected by his fellow Forest Service Rangers in southern Oregon during his pre-war days, also is a known fact. He had graduated in Forestry from Oregon State University and was well-embarked on a promising career with the Forest Service when he entered the Air Force.
Campbell, of course, was only one of thousands of airmen who gave his life for his country. But he must be the only former B-17 bomber pilot to have a falls on a major river named in his honor. This occurred in 1949.
A bronze plaque was donated by contributions from Forest Service employees throughout the Pacific Northwest. It was placed on a huge bolder in the center of an island in the middle of the South Umpqua River some 12 miles upstream from Tiller, Oregon, which is 25 miles east of Interstate 5 between Roseburg and Grants Pass.
This special place is known as Campbell Falls.
It is a fitting location for such a memorial, as it is near the fire lookout stations where Campbell first served before becoming Assistant Ranger for this forest region.
The falls were officially named by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names in honor of Campbell upon the recommendation of the local Forest Service personnel.
Over 75 persons attended the dedication in 1949, including members of Campbells family, friends, Forest Service personnel, local people who knew him at Tiller, a representative of the OSU School of Forestry and veterans from the American Legion and VFW. Flags were presented by Boy Scouts from Canyonville.
Forty-two years later, in 1991, the FLAK NEWS editor and his wife journeyed from Seattle to Tiller to view the memorial that perpetuates the memory of this obviously well-loved Robert Greenlee Campbell. They were accompanied by brother Homer Campbell and his wife, Meg, of Corvallis, OR. Homer is a retired Fish & Wildlife biologist.
Campbell Falls was easy to find, requiring but a short walk to the river from the road. The prominent signs stirred 398th pride as the walking part of the pilgrimage began. But the Umpqua River was in a defensive mood on visitation day. Its rushing waters were too deep and dangerous and a deep, new channel between the river bank and rock prevented any safe crossing and access to the bronze plaque.
A hastily built dam proved too flimsy in the eyes of the veteran outdoorsman Homer. But not for the fearless Meg. She negotiated the crossover and proceeded to photograph the plaque and falls. She also presented a bouquet of flowers on behalf of the 398th Bomb Group.
At the 1949 dedication another woman, Robert Campbells mother-in-law, Edith Cotter of Portland, offered this poem -
MEMORIAL TO FOREST PILOT
He would have said, three elements
comprise material worth
When catalyzed or fused by fire:
water, air and earth;
And threefold is the character
of mans mysterious whole,
Made vital by the inner spark:
body, spirit, soul.
Earth cherishes his virile frame
and waters chart his prayer;
His spirit ranges unconfined,
free as mountain air.
Claire Campbell and little daugher Nancy also attended to mourn their husband and father. Clarie, who still lives in the Portland area where she and Bob grew up, later re-married ... to a former B-17 pilot, Bob Schneider. Nancy is married and living in California.
Several members of Campbells crew have remained in touch over the years. These are Fil Arbogast, Co-pilot; Herb Licker, bombardier; Andrew Coatley, engineer; Ben Core, radio; Duane Cassidy, Arch Floyd and Ralph Loss, gunners.
Joe Coopet, navigator, and Andrew Jones, gunner, are deceased. Loss was grounded for medical reasons and was replaced by Charles Hammond. The latters whereabouts is unknown.
Campbell Falls honors the pilot who displayed outstanding heroism by staying at the controls of his crippled bomber allowing his entire crew to escape.
That he was the last man out is a known fact, attested to by members of his crew.
But did he jump and land safely?
Could he have been hit by another aircraft as he bailed out?
Could his chute have failed to open?
Core, a prosecuting attorney in Fort Smith, AR, submits the thesis that Campbell, because of so many broken bones and crushed skull, could have been beaten to death by civilians and dumped into the nearest river. His body was not found and buried until four days later.
Homer Campbell, reading the Missing Air Crew Report about his brother for the first time, was visibly shaken by the conjecture on the nature of Bobs demise.
He thought for a moment, and then said:
I cannot believe that a beating could have caused his death. It had to have been that his parachute failed to open.
Homer and Meg, noting that the groups 1992 tour to Germany and England will include Merseburg, could not help but see that the site of his brothers crashed B-17 is close by. Are there people still living in the area who might remember?
The records accumulated by members of the crew reveal more than a few leads that could, conceivably, lead to answers. It is known that the B-17 crashed at Grumpa, a mile from Mucheln. The crash was investigated by a Captain Haun from the Air Field HQ at Kolleda.
The local Grumpa police under 1/Sgt. Bleiz, guarded the crash site. And the Burgermeister at Mucheln would have known about the burial of Campbell.
In that Campbells body and the plane came down in the same general area, several miles from the other flyers who successfully bailed out, it was reasoned that Campbell had plummeted, rather than parachuted.
All records indicate that the plane was 98% destroyed by the impact and fire. Obviously, Campbell had jumped. But beyond that, only questions.
Campbells first mission was on July 29 to Merseburg. His last mission on November 2 ... to Merseburg?
See also the T/Sgt. Ben Core, Radio Operator/Top Turret Gunner, 601st Diary page. Ben Core was part of the Bob Campbell Crew.
Transcribed November 2004 by Dawne Dougherty, widow of Tom Dougherty, 602nd Gunner.