There's no end to stories from the war. A recent episode of "60 Minutes "featured the BentProp Project, a group of divers who search for wrecked planes lost during World War II in the South Pacific. Their efforts to bring home the remains of servicemen still listed as missing prompted me to revisit a note that has haunted me for too long.
Tony Crawford, of Dallas, has been patient. He sent his first note long ago — and several reminders since — all nice, all polite, but with a heightening sense of urgency that I help get the word out about his project.
He wrote a book, "The Search for Miss Deal and the Early Raiders on The Reich," with one purpose — to draw attention to the fate of his uncle, who went down with the B-17 "Miss Deal" 42-30049, a Flying Fortress now resting on the muddy bottom of Dollart Bay between Germany and the Netherlands.
His hope? That one day he will raise the B-17 and retrieve the bodies of two men entombed inside: 2nd Lt. John R. Way, the pilot, and Crawford's uncle, Staff Sergeant Charles E. Crawford, the ball turret gunner.
War records indicate Crawford was killed during a bombing run on the submarine pens at Hamburg. With two engines ablaze, the crew fought to keep the plane flying and reach friendly territory. But they soon lost a third engine, and the plane exploded over the shallow estuary.
Local fishermen located the plane, and Crawford says the military knows where it is. But because much of the wreckage is sunk in the muddy bottom, an expedition to raise the plane and recover Tony's "Uncle Charlie" from the shattered ball turret would be expensive… so he's hoping for a sponsor and setting aside all funds from sales of his book for that purpose. It's available on Amazon and other online booksellers. To learn more, search for "findmissdeal" on Facebook or the web.
Crawford's book also carries a chapter on another bomber crew that included an East Texan. Hawkins native Burl Owen, who Crawford said still has family in Tyler, also was a ball turret gunner aboard the B-17 "Avenger" 42-5390. It was blasted from the sky above Termunten, Holland, sending villagers scrambling for their lives as pieces of the plane plummeted to the ground around them.
Owen is buried in Holland. After being notified by the military that their son was lost in action, the Owen family received another letter, this one from an eyewitness, Miss A.J. Nannen of Termunten, Holland.
"The entire village joined in mourning," she wrote. "Next day the burial took place in the churchyard. The organ played and thus the seven flyers were interred in a common grave. All of us were present. The mayor spoke and the minister offered a prayer in English. After the service I went home quite overcome. Poor boys who had to lose their young lives here far from their relatives. We have taken flowers to their graves."
Henry "Hank" Pendergrass called after reading the Nov. 5 column "Brothers In Arms," about the strong ties of brothers in wartime. You might know Hank; he's from Tyler. During the war, he was an Army infantry sergeant who saw a lot of combat in the South Pacific. During one of the early Heroes Flights, at the base of the Marine Memorial, this soft-spoken man had emotionally told me his story — how more than two-thirds of the men in his company had been killed or wounded on the island of Okinawa.
In the "Brothers in Arms" column, Melvin Sparks of Longview had recounted his experience watching from a nearby ship as kamikaze suicide bombers attacked the U.S.S. Tennessee off Okinawa. The battleship had fended off five of the attackers, but a sixth got through. Its bomb exploded over the portside guns, engulfing the ship's stern in flames and killing his older brother David.
Hank didn't see the kamikaze attacks. He had his head down somewhere on the island that day, five miles from the stricken battleship. But he wanted me to know he too had a brother on the Tennessee. His brother, E.C. "Pete" Pendergrass, was an anti-aircraft gunner and had served aboard the Tennessee ever since Pearl Harbor. Pete was originally assigned to the Oklahoma, but ended up on the Tennessee. During the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the Oklahoma exploded and sank; the Tennessee survived. Hank got off the island alive; and Pete survived both attacks on the Tennessee. Both brothers came home, but Pete is gone now. Hank said the two never discussed the war.
Samantha Mulvaney, a member of the Marine Aviation Spouses Club in Washington, D.C., was one of those spotlighted in my Nov. 5 column "People are Generally Good." Reacting to the experience of meeting the Brookshire's Heroes Flight and the 27 World War II veterans from East Texas at the World War II Memorial, she wrote:
"I had been looking forward to the opportunity to meet and greet the vets for a couple of weeks but I never expected it to touch me so deeply," she said. "This particular experience of meeting the vets of WWII will certainly remain a memory that is without compare. I can honestly say, there was not a spouse there that didn't walk away with a similar feeling. We were all floating… it truly touched each of us deeply and we were so grateful for the opportunity to simply be there."
Finally, Harriet Gibson wrote about something totally opposite war and combat. She wrote about sunsets. The column "Farewell to the Day" in the Oct. 22 paper "brought back beautiful memories of the years I lived in Del Rio," she said.
"In the summer of 1967, three to five days every week I drove out of town to an open space in that semi-desert just to watch the sunset… no camera then was capable of capturing the breathtaking sunset. Added to all the colors you mention, there were multiple shades of purple. I sure miss the beauty of God's awesome color pad."
Yes, Harriet, sometimes you just need to find an open space and watch — wherever you are. Monday evening, as we crept past a two-fatality wreck on Highway 271, the sun was a bright red ball descending over Tyler in a sky of bright orange and yellow. Amid the chaos, there will always be beautiful sunsets — over Del Rio, Washington and Tyler; over Dollart Bay and the wreckage of the Miss Deal; over Termunten and the graves of seven young airmen; and over the crystal blue waters of the East China Sea and the now-gentle beaches of Okinawa.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs on the front of the My Generation section every Wednesday. Thanks to all who have written or called.