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Flying into France

After 60 years, a U.S. bomber gunner returns

After 60 years, a U.S. bomber gunner returns

March 09, 2005|by KATE COLEMAN

Lee Watson is going to France.

He was there 60 years ago during World War II when he was 19 years old.

The circumstances of this visit will be different. He'll be arriving on French soil in a commercial airliner, not by parachute. That long-ago jump for survival is the reason Watson is returning to the French countryside.

He will be accompanied by Jean Watson, his wife of more than 50 years, and friends and family members of a WWII crewman. The mayor of Andryes, France, invited the Americans to attend a ceremony March 12 honoring Watson and his nine fellow crew members whose plane crashed in Andryes on Jan. 16, 1945.

The Americans' plane had been disabled by enemy fire over Germany, but remained airborne. Pilot John W. Moran coaxed the ship back to French airspace with just two engines operating before it ran out of fuel.

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"I've never heard a silence like that," Watson recalled.

The crew parachuted as the plane went down. Two crewmen died in the jump.

Watson kept a silence of his own for nearly 60 years.

"He never talked about the war," said his daughter, Julia "Julie" Burgin, who lives in Purcellville, Va.

He was close-mouthed the few times that she asked him about his experiences, she said. "I respected that."

Why didn't Watson talk about his service?

"To tell you the truth," he said, "I wanted to forget everything about what I did."

But he didn't forget, and where his memories were unclear, his handwritten diary and official records of the 8th Air Force's 458th Bombardment Group brought them into focus.

He compiled the story of his combat missions and gave copies to his daughter and his two brothers as Christmas gifts in 2001.

"I did this because somebody asked me," he said.

Now he's glad he did.

Burgin said she thinks her dad wanted to leave a legacy for his only grandchild, 9-year-old Jacob "Jay" Lee Watson.

"I'm very proud of him. Jay's extremely proud of him," she said.

"It's not about me. It's about the guys who died," Watson insisted.

Close shaves

Watson called World War II the last patriotic war.

"I wanted to go in. Everybody I knew wanted to go in," he said. "We did what we were supposed to do."

Watson graduated from Towson Catholic High School in June 1943. He and his friends signed up for military service the following Monday, and they were in the Army by August. After training at various Army Air Corps bases, Watson was assigned to the 8th Air Force in England.

"Our home base was just outside the city of Norwich (at) Horsham St. Faith Airfield," he wrote.

He became a ball turret gunner on a B-24 bomber. The B-24 was nicknamed the "Liberator." The ball turret was a machine-gun emplacement in a spherical dome that projected from the underside of the plane. By Jan. 1945, though, the B-24's ball turret gun was replaced with radar equipment, and Watson was stationed in the "waist" - the middle of the airplane fuselage.

Between August 1944 and April 1945, he flew 28 combat missions. He also was on board another five that were "scrubbed," or recalled.

Flying was hard, uncomfortable and dangerous duty. The men wore electric suits plugged into the plane to keep them warm enough to function at the 50-degrees-below-zero temperatures in unpressurized cabins with guns sticking out of open windows.

On missions, the B-24s took off and got in wingtip-to-wingtip flying formation at 10,000 feet. The air at that altitude was so thin, oxygen became operative. Crew members wore masks which fit over their noses and mouths.

"We had to shave," Watson said, explaining that whiskers would have kept their masks from fitting snugly. Throat microphones made communication among the crew members possible, but that was lost when the plane was hit on Jan. 16, 1945.

Search for crewmen

Darin Scorza, of Overland, Kan., whose father served with the 458th in its early days, is recording the stories of the crews of the 8th Air Force on the Internet. So far he's posted a "fraction" of the accounts of 300 10-men crews, he said in a recent phone interview.

Several months ago, Scorza contacted Watson, telling him that the mayor of Andryes was looking for information about members of the crew whose plane went down Jan. 16, 1945.

"You're the only person we can find," Scorza told Watson.

Last September, Watson received a letter from the mayor. He doesn't speak or read French, so he inquired at Hagerstown Community College about finding someone to translate the letter.

Hagerstown resident Jeanne Jacobs, a teacher, history buff and native of France who married an American officer after World War II, was happy to help.

The mayor's letter begins:

"It has been almost 60 years that fate brought you on French soil in our small town ... The war was still raging, we were free from German occupation, but you were still risking your life to liberate Europe from Nazi ideology."

The mayor contacted Watson to have him fill in gaps in the account of the mission and crash, and to invite him to a commemoration and installation of a crash site plaque bearing the names of the crew.

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