This post is actually one that I shared on Facebook in 2011. It bears repeating…
A Perfect Day
To begin at the beginning, my great uncle, Chester David Jaques, was a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in WWII. He flew B-17 bombers (aka Flying Fortress). He was trained in Iowa and New Mexico and when it came time for him to go to war he was transferred to a former RAF base in Molesworth, England. His group was the 303rd Bombardment Group, 427th Bomber Squadron, 8th Air Force, Army Air Corps. This is Uncle Chester and his first crew at a fueling stopover in Morocco. They flew their B-17over from the United States to England, by way of Morocco.
I have to give special credit to Gary L. Moncur, who is largely responsible for the establishment of the 303rdBG.com website. When you check it out, you’ll see why. The site is truly a labor of love. You can find the website at this address: Hell’s Angels: 303rd Bomb Group, (H)
Like so many others, Chester Jaques actually flew very few missions. His final mission, on 15 May 1943, was only his fifth credited; he was dispatched on a total of seven missions, but on two of these was forced to abort and return to Molesworth. On his final mission he was accompanied by a crew of nine men. They were:
- Pilot: 1st Lt. Chester D. Jaques
- Co-pilot Lt. Alvin D. Holder
- Navigator Lt. John W. Bradshaw
- Bombardier Lt. Robert C.A. Carlson
- Engineer T/Sgt. Lester O. Corns
- Tail gunner Staff Sgt. Keith L. Clapshaw
- Radio operator Sgt. Warren T. Vasel
- Ball turret gunner Staff Sgt. Ward W. Kirkpatrick
- Right waist gunner Staff Sgt. W.G. Morrison
- Left waist gunner Sgt. Clayton W. Ryan
Several months ago I received a note from a woman named Sally Neumann. Her son in law had come across a post that I placed on the website for the 303rd Bomb Group (see the link above). Unfortunately, my email address has changed since I placed that post, and the email she tried to send me was bounced back. Being a resourceful soul, she looked in the Anchorage online telephone directory, located my snailmail address and mailed her note. In it she mentioned that she was the sister of one Ward W. Kirkpatrick, the ball turret gunner on Chester D. Jaques’ final mission, and would I be interested in meeting her this summer? WOULD I? WOULD I?? How could I say no to THIS? Sally Neumann included her email address in the note and I responded at once and most enthusiastically that I would of course like to meet her. She was planning, she wrote, to come to Anchorage for a cruise down the Inland Passage and would be pleased to come a day early so that we could meet and spend some time sharing about our family members and their unique bond.
Since the day I received her note, I have been praying that all the pieces of this remarkable puzzle would fall into place easily and that has indeed been the case. Sally and her daughter Ruth arrived yesterday (July 22) at 11:30. My daughter Kate and I met them at the airport. Sally and I have been exchanging emails since our initial contact and she joked that she would wear a bow in her hair so I could recognize her, to which I replied that I would be carrying a sign with her name. So we both, proudly flying our badges of recognition, met at the arrival area of the Ted Stevens International Airport. The instant I saw Sally and Ruth, there was a bond established and the four of us were fast friends, chattering away as we headed downstairs to the baggage claim area. We collected their luggage and headed off to the Anchorage Hilton, where they were to stay overnight prior to embarking on the cruise.
Over lunch at the Hooper Bay Café, we talked about her brother Ward and how very young he was at the time of his enlistment. He graduated from high school in 1941 at the age of sixteen. Naturally, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Ward could see nothing else but enlisting in the Army Air Corps. He told their father that he wanted his permission, because at the time he was just barely seventeen years old and the American military would have refused to allow him to enlist at such a young age without parental consent. Ward also told their father that if he refused to sign the enlistment papers, he would go to Canada and enlist with the RAF. Sally said that their father agonized for an entire weekend over the decision whether or not to sign those papers. At last he gave his consent and signed Ward’s enlistment papers.
On December 27, 1941 Ward Kirkpatrick enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the United States Air Force, and quickly became such an expert ball turret gunner that he was, for a time at least, an instructor. After completing his training he was shipped to Europe in the fall of 1942, joining the 303rd Bomb Group, 427th Squadron. (Can you imagine any 17 year old today achieving the rank of Staff Sergeant?!?) He flew a total of twenty-four missions, the final one being the same flight that claimed the life of Chester Jaques, my great uncle, as well as the rest of the crew.
It was a bittersweet visit, talking about who these men were and how they must have met in the States during training, as both were posted to Iowa and New Mexico during the same period of time. Chester Jaques, however, was a pilot and as such was able to fly a B-17 over to England via Morocco. Ward Kirkpatrick went over on the Queen Mary, which at the time was enlisted as a troop transport.
For me the most poignant part of our visit was when Sally shared with me the memories of her final contact with Ward, who was 8 years older than she. The family received word that Ward and his group were due to ship out to an unknown destination and were afforded the opportunity to see their son and brother one last time before his departure. They were not allowed to come through the fence surrounding the military installation; nor were they permitted physical contact. Sally said there was a guard present at all times during their visit and they were sternly warned not to do this or that, or to pass objects to Ward. And so he was shipped off to England…and they never saw him again.
On May 24, 1943, Mr. and Mrs. Warren Kirkpatrick received a telegram from the Adjutant General that Ward was missing in action following a bombing mission on May 15. After seven years, the War Department declared a finding of death in the case of Ward Kirkpatrick, but his body was never found. Of the ten men who took off on May 15 for that mission, only four were located following their deaths, and one of these was my great uncle. The bones of Ward W. Kirkpatrick lie somewhere in the North Sea, approximately 25 miles west of Wilhelmshaven, Germany.
Following our lunch, we headed down the Seward Highway to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which is located near Portage. The drive down was glorious. Temperatures hit a high of 81 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; and while it was warm, there was also a following breeze and this lessened the heat quite a bit. The Center is a great place to bring visitors who want to see Alaskan animals in a relatively natural setting. Granted, musk oxen are not exactly “native” to Southcentral Alaska, but this can be forgiven when you consider the beauty of the setting and how well-cared for the animals are. I have never seen such glossy fur on a bear! All of the animals were relaxed, well fed and well adjusted, in clean enclosures with water and plenty of space. A visitor can either park their vehicle and walk all around the Center, or drive slowly through and get out for a closer look at the animals. In our case, we opted to drive through and get out when we wanted to see more or take pictures. It was beautiful ; I think that both Sally and Ruth were well pleased with the experience. I know that Kate and I certainly were.
Needing to be back at the Hilton to take care of some issues with their room, we opted to head north to Anchorage. The day continued as fine as could be. We saw quite a few slightly insane people out on the water windsurfing(!) and agreed that, while it looked like fun, there would be no way any of us would consider doing such a thing…but it was fun to see. We stopped at our house to pick up Rhys so that he could join us for dinner.
We arrived back at the Hilton in good time. Sally and Ruth took care of their room and we headed off to the Sourdough Mining Company for dinner with my mom and dad. I had hoped that my parents would hit it off with Sally and I am pleased to report that this was indeed the case! Dinner was a resounding success and we had a wonderful meal and conversation. Mom brought both of her books (Journey to a Dream and Suddenly…It’s Spring!) which she autographed and presented to Sally as a memento of the trip. By the time we finished dinner, all of us were exhausted, especially Sally and Ruth who had been on the go since early that morning. We made our farewells to Mom and Dad at the restaurant and took our guests back to the Hilton for a well deserved night’s rest. They were to board their cruise ship at 4 PM today (Saturday) and embark on a 12 day trip to Alaskan ports, with the final destination of Vancouver, British Columbia, and then home to Spokane, Washington by plane.
It has been a rare and wonderful experience. I have connected in a very special way with someone whose family has also made the supreme sacrifice of a loved one in the service of our country. As I told Sally and Ruth, the connection we have is one that very few people are able to make and it is one that I cherish.
Finally, the day was like receiving an unexpected gift from God, all the more appreciated because of the surprise of making the connection with Sally, and then to actually meet on such a beautiful day – my heart is full and words fail me…I can only say thank you, thank you Lord…toda raba, Abba, and vielen Dank, lieber Gott! A perfect day.