I never knew my Uncle Bob, but his presence was felt in the house as I was growing up.
My paternal grandmother died when I was 3, but I later heard the story of how I might have been named Robert (a decade after he died), but she would have found it too heartbreaking to have another little Bob running around the house.
Uncle Bob was one of the millions of the dutiful we should be spending Memorial Day celebrating. Several family members served in World War II, but he was the only one who didn’t come back.
A 24-year-old flight engineer, he died when his badly damaged B-24 Liberator bomber ditched in the sea a few miles short of England’s Suffolk coast. Five of the 10-man crew survived; the other half, including Robert Bardwell Williams, didn’t.
That, more or less, is what I was told in childhood, and it turns out to be true, not just family mythology, as I half-feared when I started researching.
Thanks to the Internet, it’s become easy to look up all sorts of things that used to be obscure. There’s actually an 8th Army Air Force report about that day, March 6, 1944.
The tide of war in Europe was turned by then, with Nazi forces being beaten back across the Ukraine and in Italy. Preparation was well underway for that summer’s Allied invasion of France.
On March 6, the 8th Army Air Force put all three of its divisions into action — 672 B-17s and B-24s were sent on a daylight raid on Berlin. The air battle between the escort fighters and the Luftwaffe was tremendous: While 69 American bombers were lost, the German air force lost 82 fighters, and that was later seen as a turning point toward the Luftwaffe’s decline. While the American military manufacturing machine that included General Electric and Alco was fully geared up, it was harder for the Germans to replace their losses.
“The Luftwaffe, while it could to some extent replace the aircraft, could not make up the loss of some of its most experienced pilots killed and seriously wounded in the ferocious air battles,” the Army Air Force report stated.
At 3:53 p.m. that day, Uncle Bob’s plane went into the sea three miles short of the coast. The plane had been damaged by flak over Berlin, and then sustained further damage from Luftwaffe fighters on the return trip.
Though high-speed launches were dispatched to the crash site and five crew members were rescued, only one body was recovered from the North Sea. Bob Williams wasn’t one of them. There’s a small marble marker for him in a family plot in a tiny rural cemetery in Massachusetts.
Maybe this story shouldn’t be so personal. Millions of families carry on in some version of the “missing man formation,” and millions of them across the country and around the world have far fresher or more grievous wounds than mine.
Take some time this weekend to think concretely — name names — about the sacrifices veterans have made, and of those who are missing and silent, as well as the veterans marching in parades.