Many of us who are middle age or older had a friend or relative who served in our country's armed forces overseas, defending freedom, and never made it home. I had an uncle like that in World War II.
Reflecting on it, I cannot imagine how devastated my grandparents must have been on that late summer day in 1944 when they received a visit from a representative of the U.S. War Department. They were advised that their youngest son, Clarence Brawn, was missing in action in the European theater. Clarence was a B-17 tail gunner whose aircraft was shot down on a combat mission over Europe.
On that same day, they were told that their middle son, 1st Lt. Philip W. Brawn, was killed in action in the South Pacific theater. As it turned out, Clarence survived the downing of his aircraft, became a prisoner of war and was released at the conclusion of hostilities in World War II. He now lives in California.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Philip, "Uncle Phily," as I have always known him, are somewhat unusual but depict the highest standards of our servicemen and women.
Uncle Phily had served as lead bombardier on Capt. Richard Ryan's B-24 Liberator Crew, 321st Bomb Squadron, 90th Bomb Group (Jolly Rogers). At the time of his death, Uncle Phily had flown 58 combat missions, mostly flying out of Nadzab, New Guinea. His tour of duty in the South Pacific was completed, and he and the rest of Ryan's crew were awaiting transport back to the states.
An acquaintance of Uncle Phily's, 1st Lt. Clifford Whatley, previously a C-47 transport pilot, had just been checked out to pilot the B-24. On July 31, 1944, his first mission as a B-24 pilot, 321st Bomb Squadron, Whatley comprised a crew of unattached crew members to fly a bombing run on Babo in the northwest corner of New Guinea. Whatley asked Uncle Phily if he would fly as his bombardier.
Although not obligated to, and against the advice of members of his old crew, my uncle consented to fly on this, his final mission.
Whatley encountered problems on takeoff and was late getting his aircraft into the air. As a result, he attached his aircraft to the 400th Bomb Squadron and turned his attention to a secondary target, the airborne at Moemi, also in northwest New Guinea. The squadron aircraft had good coverage with its bombs on the airborne, but it ran into terrific ground fire. Several of the aircraft were hit, and Whatley's aircraft received hits that knocked out two of its four engines.
Unable to maintain his altitude, Whatley realized he would never make it back to Wake, his home base, so he diverted his aircraft to Noemfoor Island, the closest friendly airstrip. To reduce weight, Uncle Phily and the rest of the crew busied themselves with throwing everything, including the bomb bay tank, off the aircraft. When the crew could see Noemfoor Island, they were at 2,000 feet altitude but still going down. They even spotted a boat, which had departed Noemfoor to assist them in the event of ditching the aircraft. Uncle Phily assembled the crew in the waist section of the aircraft and prepared them for ditching.
As Whatley set the aircraft down in the Pacific Ocean, Staff Sgt. Daniel Hentscher, one of the mission's three survivors, recalled the aircraft stopping abruptly and seeing a flash of fire followed by an explosion. The aircraft was in pieces. Whatley and six crew members, including my uncle, died.
I think of my Uncle Phily often -- more than just once a year -- and am so proud he was my uncle. I named my youngest son after him. All of us, at this special time of the year, should give homage to the Uncle Philys of this great country of ours.
GEORGE W. HOAGE, a retired master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force, lives in Buffalo.
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