His Name was Billy
Hi-di-ho, friends! Today marks an important date in the history of the mighty Eighth Air Force - and as such it was a memorable date on the home front ... in the Bronx, New York City ... in my family's home. This was the Gardiner family's 1940s experience put into action on August 17, 1943 following a B-17 combat mission over Schweinfurt, Germany.
In a bad-luck "jinx" Flying Fortress that had previously, yet briefly, flown with the Memphis Belle on its last mission, "Frank's Nightmare" didn't make it back to England following a strike force raid on ball bearing plants in Germany. Under relentless German fighter attacks, the bomber went down over Belgium with only one survivor. Mission total: 552 crew members were lost that day. I wonder if the raid's details that I read some 73 years later mattered to my aunt when she learned of the death of her 23-year old, new husband "Billy." I am sure all she cared about was that he wasn't coming home - not ever. He had flown nine successful missions in Europe and all it took was one - two days after her 21st birthday - to change the direction of her life.
The Western Union Telegram declaring him Missing in Action didn't come until the following month, but my father recalls with clarity his own father's words of assurance that "He'll come home" to his daughter when the bad news came. Dad was only eleven years of age and hardly knew the brother-in-law who had impetuously married his sister. I'm sure it didn't lessen the devastating blow when another letter came at the same time stating that Billy had been awarded the Air Medal and in his MIA status it would be presented to his wife. Then the wait came. Would another telegram follow? Was he safe? The answer was no. One month later, the dreaded telegram did come, and my father, once again, remembers the sobs that accompanied the words: Killed in Action. A formal letter of sympathy came in October, which we still have today. The Air Medal ceremony held on a bitter cold November day was captured through a child's eyes as he remembers how, as a family, they had traveled on a trolley and a train to get to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn - the place where Howard Hughes's 1938 flight around the world began.
Who Were They?
In writing this article, it occurred to me that when I die, I'll be the last person to know who Billy was. As far as I know, there are no others to tell Billy's story. His story will die with me. All that will be written of him is this blog and his name inscribed in a Mighty Eighth history book, listed as "the 2nd Lieutenant bombardier on Frank's Nightmare." Even the VFW memorial celebration in his hometown got the facts wrong a few years back. He hadn't lived with his mother on Melville Street. That was where his wife lived with her family. The newlyweds had yet to make a home together.
No one will know the man - not the flyer - Billy and that he was 5' 6" with blue eyes and blond hair or that he grew up in the Bronx. He was the only child of a Polish Catholic immigrant father who worked as a longshoreman and a mother who was a Daughter of the American Revolution. No one will tell the story of the "boy" who enlisted in January 1942, following Pearl Harbor - left his job as an advertising clerk and was an aspiring commercial artist, drawing comics within his letters to his sweetheart Marjorie (my godmother.) He had a warm smile and a nice laugh and he was quiet. I can see sincerity in this one and only surviving picture, giving testament that Billy was once among us. I would have considered him a dreamboat.
Marjorie and Billy had been only married for five months. That's it, just five months and they had a baby on the way. In March of 1943, before he left in May for yet another air field, they wed. They knew he'd be going overseas soon. He had been training in Boise, Idaho and for a NYC girl who had never gone anywhere, the thrill of traveling to him for her simple wedding must have been over the top! Because her father objected to her actions, her uncle drove her to La Guardia Air Field. Imagine that! She was to fly to see him! In 1943 that took gumption! Nothing was going to stop her from marrying the boy she loved. I can almost see her, looking gorgeous at the chapel at Gowen Air Base, standing before the priest, her bright brown eyes sparkling, her beautiful smile attracting all the boys. She was a dish. And what a glorious sense of humor she had. No doubt, she laughed at it all, even given the uncertainty of their future together. In this image, she's at her sister's nuptials, another impromptu wedding to a GI before he left for the war. I love the forties look. Such style, such femininity. I recall that about my aunt Margie, always. I miss her still.
What the history books couldn't know or share is that following the dreaded telegram, Billy's father never missed a Sunday dinner with his daughter-in-law and his new granddaughter. Years later, he would find Billy's burial spot in Belgium and bring him home. He'd never forgotten his boy - nor would he.
After that fateful mission over Germany, Billy's footlocker arrived at the Gardiner family home where Marjorie still lived. It sat in the cellar unopened, untouched in reverence as if a coffin holding the last remnants of the man until one day eight months later it emerged when the rawness of grief had dulled. My father recalls the contents: the shoes and clothing he "inherited" and the flight gear and patches that he no doubt coveted as a young boy. I imagine that the box opened the wound on my aunt's heart. I am sure, she hadn't forgotten him, but had resumed life as he would have wanted. Perhaps, she often considered what she would tell their little girl about him. Would she say "Your daddy had blue eyes and blond hair ..." and hand her the patches?
I'm curious today ... if his daughter is alive ... does she remember the father she never
knew? In life, had she reflected upon his sacrifice and that she is the living reminder of him that he left with Marjorie? I bet she did. Well, I'd like to think she did. She didn't have any children, so I don't think Billy's story lived on, only the embodiment of his existence: his daughter.
Three years after Billy's death, a letter had arrived, bearing yet another remembrance of him. His flight ring, given to him upon completion of training, slipped out of the envelope. The letter accompanying it confirmed that the bombardier of Frank's Nightmare had not been forgotten in another man's mind. The letter explained that when he processed Billy's personal belongings to return home, the sender stole the graduation ring and hadn't been able to live with himself since. He was sorry.
Marjorie did eventually remarry, as many wartime widows had. Mel was a good and loving man and someone the family adored. He adopted Billy's daughter and he and my aunt had a son together. Sometime in the 1960s all those letters, cartoons and all, from Billy were burned at the request of my grandfather who still held onto them -- unread by him, yet unforgotten. It was time to move on. Twenty years had passed.
Is there a time limit on remembering and honoring the dead? I don't think so. I thought about writing Billy into one of my novels, but I realized that, in a way, I already do. While this post is my honoring of an uncle I never knew - the man whose life and sacrifice for my freedom has been forgotten by the world but not my family - I believe that Billy represents not just the Gardiner's 1940s experience but many family's 1940s experience.
William "Billy" Warose is every boy who went off to fight and never came home. Every KIA and every MIA in every war is a "Billy" with a similar story, an easy going smile, a family who waited their return, and a heroic legacy they hoped would live on. They all gave all for me so that I can have the same. The least I can do is to share Billy's story with you. Will you consider doing the same. Surely you know a "Billy."
Requiesce in pace on this your 73rd Anniversary, Uncle and to all the other 551 men who didn't come back from that first Schweinfurt, Germany raid. Thank you.
Until next time, my friends and in honor of Billy and Marjorie, Keep 'Em Flying
Chapel at Gowan Air Base, Boise, Idaho