On May 21, 2005 at the Mighty Eighth Heritage Museum in Savannah, Georgia, members of the 398th Memorial Association presented a blade from the fallen V.A. Hansard B-17 to Michael E. Telzrow, Director of Research & Interpretation, Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum.
As follows are the presentations by 398th President Wally Blackwell and by Sandra Averhart, niece of William Harold Baker (KIA), navigator on the V.A. Hansard Crew.
Wally Blackwell Presentation
On November 25, 1944 the combat mission of the 398th Bomb Group, of the 1st Combat Wing, First Division of the 8th AF, was to bomb the synthetic oil plant near Merseburg, Germany. It was not our first trip, or the last, to that dreaded location. The target was located on the most eastern German boundary, fiercely defended by anti-aircraft guns and German fighter planes. It was a very long ten-hour round trip. I had been there twice before, and this was my 27th combat mission as a B-17 pilot. On that day the 398th seemed lucky. Perhaps the fighters went elsewhere and the always heavy flak did not cause the loss of any 398th plane, although at least one tail gunner was wounded by flak.
The 398s luck ran out when the returning Group formation neared the English coast. The weather had turned bad. The 398th home base and most all of East Anglia were socked in. This happened quite frequently. The English weather was fickle. The usual procedure was for the Squadron formation, although loosened up from a tight combat formation, to hang together and find the field. At this time the V.A. Hansard crew, on its 21st mission, and assigned in a tail end charlie Squadron location, fell behind. It soon was up to V.A. to find Station 131 on his own, or by now, any base where he could land his B-17 safely. As we know he was unsuccessful.
Flying a B-17 a few hundred feet above the ground, with near zero visibility, searching for a familiar runway, is a dreadful feeling. I was in that same situation myself at other times. In one instance, the plane actually brushed some trees while we searched for a runway. V.A. was reluctant to let a B-17 haphazardly crash into the English countryside because of the danger to those on the ground. But finally, he had to make a decision, he had run out of time, V.A. pulled the B-17 up to perhaps up an altitude of 1000 feet and ordered his crew to bail out.
Robert Cantwell, the radio operator reported that Ed Briskie (ball turret), Willie Colclough (waist gunner), James Fowler (tail gunner), William Lake (engineer) and Kenneth Hesterly (togglier) all jumped before him, in that order. But when William H. Baker, the ship's navigator, who had helped the others to parachute first, left the plane it was so low that there was no time for his parachute to open. V.A. Hansard, the pilot and Robert L. Davis, the co-pilot, were still in the plane when it crashed within sight of Bob Cantwell as he descended in his parachute. Thus, the 398th was not spared of tragedy on that day.
As the usual case, there were crews that cleaned up the remains of crashed airplanes around the English countryside. In time, the wreckage on the Reed Hall Farm, just four miles from Station131, was removed, and the war went on to VE-Day. Then one day about ten years later, Christopher and Mark Handley from Reed Hall Farm, with their friend, Douglas Crowther, while playing in the woods near the crash site, found the partly buried propeller blade that had been overlooked by the clean up crew. The prop blade remained in their care for nearly forty years. In June 1992, Mark Handley and Douglas Crowther, came to our 398th reunion site near the old base and said, Its time for you to have this. It was received very graciously and the blade remained in the care of Wilfrid Dimsdale, the leader of the English Friends of the 398th. The question of what to do with this valued possession was yet to be determined.
It took Sandra Averhart, the niece of William Baker, the crew navigator that perished, to press us into action. Sandra realized that we now have a Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum and wouldnt that be a fitting place for the blade to reside? Sandra wrote Michael Telzrow about that possibility. Michael agreed that it was indeed a splendid idea. However, the problem - how to get it here? We were most fortunate that an offer to deliver the blade to the 8th AF Museum was made by Peter Brooke, a businessman whose home is just off the runway of the old 398th base. The prop arrived last month, by Peters generous arrangements.
This is the end of a long and heartfelt adventure for so many of us. In Peter Brookes words, he was proud to be able to bring the prop blade back home. We all deeply feel that way.
At this point, Sandra Averhart, niece of William Harold Baker, the V. A. Hansard crews navigator, made the following the presentation.
Sandra Averhart Presentation
I never knew my mothers brother, my Uncle Harold. He died in World War II in 1944, four years before I was born. However, as I was growing up, my mother shared many memories of him with me
and after my mothers death, I discovered I have something else, something very precious. I have Harolds personal war diary, in which he graphically depicted his twenty missions as a navigator/bombardier in the 398th Air Force. Reading that diary and living his war experiences through his eyes was a profoundly terrifying and anguishing experience for me. He wrote these words after completing his eighteenth mission on Nov. 2, 1944:
If I live to be a thousand, I will never forget today, but wish I could.
Merseburg, Germany, 12 miles W. of Leipzig
- Synthetic oil refineries
- Break 0520-Brief 0620
- Alt. 25000 - Time 7:30
- Carried 18- 250 lb. GPs
- I could never stand another like today.
- I believe it would be a physical impossibility
- Flak, very, very heavy and very, very accurate for 25 minutes at target
- a horrible sight
- solid wall
-sky was black as night
-sun couldnt shine through
-22 flak holes in our ship
When he wrote those words, he could not know his life would end weeks later on his twenty-first mission.
Here in my mothers words was how she remembered those bleak days.
Early in December of 1944, my Daddy was working out of town and as usual, Mama and I were home alone together in the evenings. One evening, quite without warning, during our quiet meal together, I became so overwhelmed with feelings I couldnt understand, that I lay my fork down and began to sob. Mother, of course, was mystified and I was more so. She asked me what was wrong, but I couldnt tell her. I only knew I had to cry. When the bizarre and exhausting crying spells went on for over a week, Mama became very apprehensive, and then extremely alarmed.
Maybe somethings happened to your grandma, she fretted. Maybe I need to go to Jeff and see about her. So on Friday at noon, Mama boarded the bus for Jeffersonville, Indiana.
For the first time ever, the Signal Depot began a swing shift of three to eleven, and my friend Lillian and I worked it together. On the very day Mama went to Jeffersonville, I had spent the night with Lillian and was returning home to get ready to go to work again at three oclock. As was my daily habit, especially in Mamas absence, I looked toward our glass mailbox as it became visible on my approach to the house. Subconsciously, I think I always knew that one day there would be a message there from the War Department.
This particular day, as I descended the steps of the bus and looked toward the mailbox
I saw the dreaded yellow envelope. When I reached the box, I retrieved a message to call the telegraph office. With an icy feeling in my heart, I went in and immediately placed the call. The girl told me that there was a message for us from the War Department, and her very words to me were, Dont worry, honey. Its nothing serious. Trembling with relief, I heard her say they would send a dispatcher over to deliver the message immediately. Ill never forget what happened next. As the delivery boy handed me the telegram and pedaled dully off on his bicycle, I tore it open and read
The government hated to inform
Lt. William Harold Baker
killed in action
November 25, 1944
(ironically, it was Thanksgiving Day that year.) I crumpled in a dead faint
and remember awaking to a house filled with loving friends and neighbors.
When Daddy returned home that afternoon from out-of-town and saw all the cars that lined our driveway and street, he knew something was terribly wrong. But the hardest moments were yet to come as Daddy and I made the longest drive of our lives to tell Mama that her son had died.
Those words, told to me by my mother deeply touched and saddened my heart and have always remained with me, but the story doesnt end there. After Harolds memorial service, his Air Force comrade and companion, Bob Cantwell, helped the Baker family put the pieces of Harolds death together by writing my grandmother from England and visiting her as soon as he returned from the war. Bob filled in the blank page left in Harolds diary after his death on their twenty-first mission.
Robert Cantwell married his English war bride and went on to have eleven children. He stayed loyally in touch with my grandmother through calls, letters and occasional visits, until her death in 1984, and with my mother until her death in 1991, and then with me.
I was actually privileged to meet him and Marie, once when they visited my grandmother and brought her apples from their orchards, and once when they drove to Florida and were able to stop by our house for a visit.
So it seems to me, that with the Hansard B-17 blade finally coming home to rest in the Mighty Eighth Heritage Museum, with family members and friends of the crew present, we have come full circle. I am thrilled the blade has come home and I feel the spirits of all those servicemen, their families and people of our great nation, those living and those gone beyond, endlessly intertwined. We express our deepest gratitude to all servicemen and women everywhere, both then and now, who sacrificed so much to purchase our freedom. This line from my Tribute to the 398th says it best: Through the years, on countless graves sweet flowers have been laid, but to all still living and those gone on, our debt to you can NEVER be paid.
Michael, it is a great privilege to entrust this blade to you at the Mighty Eighth Heritage Museum to serve as a lasting memorial to the 398th.
Wally Blackwell then continued.
He first recognized all the Hansard crew family members present. They were:
- Sandra Averhart and husband Alan, from Florida
- Don Cantwell, son of Robert Cantwell the crew radio operator, his wife Kim and his son Josh, from Tennessee.
And then all the 398ers present. They were:
- Teedy Blackwell
- Lee Anne Bradley, daughter of Frederick Bradley, 601 Sq flight engineer, 398th Group Historian
- Dr. Bob and Jane Bowen, 601 Sq pilot, 35 missions, 398th Group Secretary
- Joe and Rozanne Joseph, 603 Sq flight engineer, with the 97th and 398th; Flew a total of 83 combat missions.
- Col. Hal and Billy Weekley, 601 Sq pilot shot down August 13, 1944, evaded capture; Pilot of EAAs B-17, Aluminum Overcast
Then on behalf of the 398th BGMA, Wally thanked Michael Telzrow, Director of Research & Interpretation and the Mighty 8th Air Force Heritage Museum for making this day of happiness possible.
And then, Wally closed by saying, "The Mission has been accomplished."