A bombardier’s legacy
A cache of old letters inspires Ross Greene
to retrace a war hero’s fatal path.
Like countless families of the 1940s, our family lost a “boy” in World War II. Our loss was 2nd Lt. Ross W. “Bud” Perrin Jr., a B-17 bombardier killed over Mannheim, Germany, on Dec. 11, 1944. Thirty-five days later, his wife Thelma, gave birth to their first-born, a daughter, Rosalind — “Roz.” I was nearly 4, the family’s first-born grandchild and his namesake. He was my beloved Uncle Bud, my hero.
Many times over the decades I have looked at a photograph taken of the two of us on his last trip home in July 1944. Wearing his Air Force crusher hat, Uncle Bud had knelt down so our eyes were at the same level. Barefooted and in my bib overalls, I snapped an airman’s salute to the smiling approval of my hero.
As children, Roz and I were close, but after college we each married, had children and moved away from our East Tennessee roots. One spring day in 2009, she called to tell me her mother, Thelma, a 1940 Miss America contestant who was now nearly 90, had suffered a debilitating stroke. Roz had gone back home to care for her.
“You’ll never guess what I’ve discovered in mom’s attic,” she said wryly. “About a thousand letters. They’re yellowed and fragile but in remarkably good shape for their age.”
This cache of wartime correspondence, primarily between her parents, had been stowed away gathering dust for decades.
“A number of them were from you,” she said. I recalled my mother’s steady hand helping me craft an occasional letter to my uncle Bud. “You called each other ‘Palsy-Walsy,’ do you remember that?”
The name had been hidden in the deep recesses of my mind for decades, but as she said it, my recall kicked in. What else is there? I wondered. She volunteered to send me the letters I’d written or in which I was mentioned.
When they arrived, I tore into the bulging package and read every word. Memories that had lain dormant for decades slowly came flooding back. “Mr. What,” the name of my first dog. “Ole Shooter,” my first friend.
There were two letters that moved me most. In one, I had sent Uncle Bud two sticks of Teaberry chewing gum, his favorite confection and therefore mine, too. One of the pieces was missing; the other was still in the envelope. In the other, penned in the late fall of 1944, I wrote: “I want you to come home for Christmas and I’ll never let you go away again.” If only he had. I stared at those words for some time.
A few weeks later, Roz sent me a disc containing scans of the remaining letters exchanged between her parents. I spent a week lost in the reverie of discovery. The magnitude of information revealed in the letters was overwhelming. They enumerated the details of Army Air Corps training and Bud’s frustration with the “hurry up and wait” attitude so prevalent in the service. They also revealed the emotions and concerns of a young couple who, like thousands of others, had to put their life plans on hold because of the war.
“After a very slow start, I got in seven missions in the first month,” Bud wrote on Sept. 29, 1944. He was required to complete 35 missions before he could return home. “At this rate I could be home before Junior is born — if you can hold off ‘till late January. No pressure, just have a healthy one — boy or girl. I’ll be home as soon as I can. I love you more than I can really express.”
When Uncle Bud died, I was told about it, of course, but I got few details and was considered too young to attend the funeral after his body was returned to the States in spring 1949.
On Saturday mornings for about an hour, I was allowed to play with his service medals and Purple Heart at Granny Perrin’s kitchen table. She would remove them from a circular powder box, and I would line them up in rows and move them around, driven by the desire to touch them and ponder what each of them signified. Granny Perrin would sit at the other end of the table and occasionally tears trickled down her wrinkled cheeks. I have the medals now. I still keep them in the same box, which has lost none of the beautiful fragrance of powder.
As time passed, our family talked about Uncle Bud less and less. I held on to a few vivid memories and treasured photos, and struggled silently with questions I was too afraid to ask. How did he die? Was he shot? Did he die in the air? Did he bail out? Did the plane crash?
Now, six decades later, this treasure of correspondence rekindled my curiosity and stirred unresolved emotions I had buried since the day I learned Uncle Bud died. I decided I had to learn everything I could about Bud’s service to our country and his death. I wanted to help Roz get to know the father she never knew. And as one of the few people still living who knew Uncle Bud, I wanted to capture his story before it was too late.
Tracing Uncle Bud’s path
My journey took me first to Seminole, Fla., to the home of Henrietta Blevins. She was the 94-year-old widow of Grover Blevins, whom Uncle Bud mentioned often in his letters. They went through several training sessions together on numerous occasions. Then I traveled to Midland, Texas, to see Robert “Bob” Angevine, one of Uncle Bud’s bombardier instructors. Next it was Memphis, Tenn., to see C.D. Cash, a fellow 532nd Bomb Squad bombardier who served with Uncle Bud at the B-17 station in Ridgewell, England. He remembered Bud as friendly, smiling and dedicated. He regaled me for hours with stories of the war; occasionally he became emotional. It seemed as though he had a lot of feelings that had been straining to get out for years.
I began to see a trend. The vets I spoke to were eager to talk to someone about their wartime experiences, but not their own families. Their family members would frequently ask me what their father told me. It was as though the vets had suppressed their war experiences not only to shield their families from the horrors but also themselves from the memories,
At the Mighty 8th Museum near Savannah, I got to fly in the Liberty Belle, a refurbished vintage B-17.
The B-17 Flying Fortress was designed as a purely functional war machine with few frills. Only a thin aluminum aircraft skin separated airmen from the extreme cold outside. The 1944-45 winter had been Europe’s coldest in a century. Outside temperatures at 28,000 feet consistently registered minus 60 degrees. Un-pressurized B-17s could become a flying casket for anyone not connected to the oxygen and heating system.
As we began to roll down the runway preparing to take off, I stepped to the open waist-gunner window and phoned Roz so we could share that moment together. Once aloft, I traversed the six-inch wide walkway between the bomb racks on each side of the bomb bay and continued through a cramped doorway into the position occupied by the bombardier and navigator. I sat astride the bombardier’s backless seat behind the Norden bombsite, the aiming device used by B-17 bombardiers. Staring through the clear Plexiglas nose of the aircraft, I tried to absorb how my Uncle must have felt as Luftwaffe fighters, Me 109s and FW 190s flew directly at his Fortress at a closing rate of 500 miles per hour.
I grew determined to seek out virtually every location mentioned in Uncle Bud’s letters: training bases, churches, cities, pubs and airbases. And I wanted to go to Germany to learn about the final minutes of Uncle Bud’s fatal mission.
My wife, Lynne, and I flew to London and toured the facilities of a girl’s school that had served as the nerve center for the 8th Air Force, code-named Pinetree. We visited the 381st Aerodrome in the East Anglia hamlet of Ridgewell, from where Uncle Bud had flown his missions. As we drove through the area, details from Uncle Bud’s letters took on new life. In my mind’s eye I saw Bing Crosby stride to the stage in the main hangar for a concert. I saw the location of a V-1 rocket strike. And we went to a private residence that was once the Fox Pub, where Bud and his crew often enjoyed camaraderie, fish and chips and cold libations.
Missing in action
As the sun set behind the trees encircling what remained of the Ridgewell Aerodrome, my mind traveled back to that night of Dec. 10, 1944, when my uncle wrote his last letter to his wife.
“I’m already in bed, but thought I’d like to say goodnight to my sweet little wife before going to sleep. Didn’t write yesterday because I was too tired after a rather tough day — it was long anyway. Still didn’t have any mail from you since last Monday. Now Sweetheart, if you don’t mind, I’ll stop this letter short and try to get some shut-eye. I love you baby, an awful lot — think of you constantly. Goodnight — Bud.”
Before daybreak the next morning, he boarded a new, unnamed B-17, in preparation for his 15th mission into the belly of the Reich. Shortly after noon, while on the bomb run, flak struck engine No. 2 and his aircraft plummeted earthward from its two-mile bombing altitude and crashed in a vacant field in Mannheim-Neckarau, Germany.
Back home, life went on as normal amid the uncertainty and inconsistency of wartime communication. Letters were written to Bud from family members, but none were answered. Twenty-two days after Bud’s plane crashed, two Air Force officers arrived on Thelma’s doorstep and delivered a missing-in-action telegram. A few days later, a telegram arrived that said, “Report now received from the German government through the International Red Cross states that your husband 2nd Lt. Ross W. Perrin Jr. who was previously reported missing in action was killed in action on eleven December over Germany. The Secretary of War extends his deep sympathy.”
Thirty five days after her father’s plane crashed, Rosalind, was born.
The mission in which Uncle Bud was killed was the largest air strike by the 8th Air Force at that time. The skies were saturated with 2,400 aircraft that day, including 1,600 bombers. One of the targets was the Mannheim-Ludwigshafen bridge (now the Konrad Adenauer Bridge) connecting the critical German BASF chemical plant with rail yards across the Rhine in Mannheim. Only 14 planes were lost that day, less than one-half of 1 percent of the total strike force. One of them was Uncle Bud’s.
Finding the crash site
Some may think it ghoulish, but I needed to see the spot where Uncle Bud died.
I spent a year trying to locate the plane’s crash site and track down an eyewitness who could tell me exactly what happened. Many people helped me along the way.
Belgian WWII researcher Edouard Reniere suggested I write letters to Mannheim officials detailing my quest. Historian Marilyn Walton had my request translated by Hanns Claudius Scharff, son of the notorious Nazi interrogator of downed allied airmen, Hanns Joachim Scharff — the enemy. While researching her father’s POW imprisonment, Walton had befriended Claudius as well as his father, Hanns, who had interrogated her B-24 bombardier father when he was shot down in 1944. Of all the unusual circumstances and unbelievable assistance I received during my journey, this may have been at the top of the list.
One of the letters captured the interest of the editor of Mannheim’s morning newspaper. An article appeared outlining my quest for information about the 1944 crash. Natalie Blaquiere, a champion alpine skier, responded. The newspaper published her request that any witness to the crash meet her at the Mannheim town square the following Saturday morning.
At the time, I was on a research excursion to Normandy, France, but I quickly cut my trip short and traveled to Mannheim. City and museum officials graciously honored me with a champagne reception at the town hall. In honor of my research, the heroism of my uncle’s crew and the work of the Allies in ridding Germany of the despotic Hitler, they flew the American flag over the city of Mannheim-Neckarau and presented me with photos and documents chronicling the wartime history of the city.
And that day I met five people who witnessed parts of the 1944 air tragedy that killed Uncle Bud.
Irene Penn was a young teenager when she witnessed the escape of the only two crew members who survived the crash. Their parachutes wafted down in front of her home almost a mile from the crash site. They were apprehended by the Gestapo and spent the remainder of the war as POWs.
Karl Schmidt was in a bomb shelter when the plane crashed. As soon as the all-clear siren sounded, he ran to the crash site two blocks away in a parking lot behind a restaurant. Schmidt, who was 12 at the time, said his father entered the burning wreckage and took some money from the aircraft.
Comparing Schmidt’s recollection of the aftermath with details I’d gleaned from other sources, I was able to determine the post-crash location of my uncle’s body, some 100 yards away from the crash site along the flight path of the doomed B-17.
My journey had brought me to a place of quiet finality.
A war hero
During the course of my quest, I decided to write a book about my experience retracing Uncle Bud’s service to our country. Roz was the first person to read the unedited manuscript, “A Fortress and a Legacy.”
“I never knew what to call him,” she said when she finished it. “I now know he’s my dad.”
As a result of my journey, I have had numerous opportunities, both in the U.S. and Britain, to speak on what Uncle Bud’s World War II experience taught me. Earlier this year I gave a speech at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah. In their wartime letters, Uncle Bud and Aunt Thelma had called their soon-to-be-born child “Junior.” At the end of my presentation, I told the audience there was a special guest with me that evening.
“Junior, would you please come forward,” I said.
Rosalind joined me at the podium and the audience gave her a standing ovation. As we tearfully embraced, I realized that all the time, energy and resources I had invested in this quest had paid enormous dividends. My family always had boundless love for Uncle Bud and held him in high esteem. But it was gratifying to have our devotion to him validated over and over again by those with whom he served and those whom he helped liberate.
And now my cousin Roz had a fuller picture of the father she never got to know — Lt. Ross W. “Bud” Perrin Jr., war hero.
ABOUT THE STORY
To piece together the story of his uncle’s military service during World War II, Ross Greene spent years combing through volumes of government records, war diaries and mission documents, and he toured numerous museums and air fields. He interviewed more than 200 WWII veterans, some of whom had trained and served with his uncle, as well as historians, authors and researchers. He chronicled his journey in a book titled “A Fortress and a Legacy: The Gift of a WWII Bombardier’s True Story to the Daughter He Never Knew.” (For information, go to afortressandalegacy.com.) It is a story of family devotion and the legacy of loss. And it is a reminder of what we owe those who serve our country as we approach Veterans Day on Nov. 11.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
J. Ross Greene has a background in engineering and a 40-year career in the investment industry with his own consulting firm. He is the author of “A Fortress and a Legacy: The Gift of a WWII Bombardier’s True Story to Daughter He Never Knew.” He and his wife Lynne live near Atlanta. They have three children and eight grandchildren.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.