After six decades, his fate is known
The discovery of a Purple Heart leads to asearch and an obscure book that helps an airman's family finally learn how he disappeared inWorld War II.
By JOAN DUNHAM
Published May 30, 2006
More than 61 years ago, in November 1944, the family of Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. John H. Dunham received the devastating news that their 21-year-old husband, son and brother was missing in action. The War Department informed them only that his plane had been shot down over the Philippines.
His parents, his wife and four siblings kept up their hopes that John might one day come back to their home in Racine, Wis. They waited for him to be found, alive, and to come home, even years after the war ended in August 1945. After all, they read stories of other MIAs being plucked from remote Pacific islands, the servicemen returning years later.
John's family dreamed of his triumphant return - how he would look, what they would tell him.
But they never got the chance to tell him anything. Eventually, John was declared killed in action.
The decades passed, his wife remarried, his brother died, and though the remaining family members didn't forget John, they no longer dreamed of his return, either.
And then, last year and quite unexpectedly, they had to think of John again.
One of his three surviving sisters, Dorie Roberts, died. Her husband gave her two sisters something they never expected to get and had known nothing about: a Purple Heart medal, presented to John after he had been declared killed in action.
The sisters, Mary Smith of St. Petersburg and Ruth Foley of Racine, could only surmise it had come into Dorie's possession when she was the last to leave the family home in Racine.
Because John and his wife had never had children, Ruth and Mary decided to pass his Purple Heart to Mary's grandson, Air Force Capt. Brian Smith. But Mary also asked other relatives if any of them had heard anything definitive from the government beyond the brief KIA notification.
After many decades, she again began to wonder if somewhere someone, or some government agency, knew something about her brother's death more than 60 years earlier.
Along with the medal, she took her concerns to grandson Brian.
He turned to the Internet with the bits of information he had: that John H. Dunham had been a pilot in the 500th Bomb Squadron.
Brian Smith's search brought him to Harlan N. Hatfield, a military historian known to wartime researchers as the Warbird. A 20-year veteran of the Air Force and duty in Vietnam, Hatfield is the Webmaster for a site dedicated to the history of the 500th Bomb Squadron of the 5th Air Force (www.500thbsq-b25s.com)
Hatfield sent Smith an excerpt from Lawrence J. Hickey's book, Warpath Across the Pacific. And finally, the Dunham family learned what had happened to John.
His last mission was in a part of the book subtitled "Suicide Mission to Ormoc Bay, Nov. 9, 1944." According to Hickey:
The U.S. Army, supported by minimal elements of the 5th Air Force, was battling Japanese troops on the Philippine island of Leyte. Allied intelligence had detected a large Japanese convoy approaching Ormoc Bay, about 45 miles across the island from the U.S. planes at Tacloban, on the east side of the island.
According to this history, the convoy included six Japanese transports carrying an estimated 11,000 combat troops and 3,500 tons of supplies, including four heavy artillery pieces. Six destroyers and four coastal patrol vessels shepherded the transports.
To attack the convoy before it could offload the men and weaponry, an Air Forces major added to the attacking force of P-38 fighters and B-25 bombers four other planes that were stranded at the base by bad weather while flying courier duties.
As it turned out, there were five crews for these four courier planes, including 2nd Lt. Dunham, a co-pilot, and his pilot, 1st Lt. Frederick W. Dick. A coin was tossed and Lt. Dick's crew was one of those selected for the four planes.
Indeed, Dick was chosen by the other pilots to lead the tiny formation, which would be flying almost a diversionary attack in front of a score of P-38s and far-slower B-25s.
The courier planes were loaded with 1,000-pound bombs. They flew to the west coast and were the first to spot the Japanese convoy. The big transports already were anchored and unloading, under the protection of land-based anti-aircraft emplacements, as well as those aboard destroyers and patrol vessels.
Dick circled his formation of four planes behind a low ridge to give the P-38s time to clear the target. Then he led his tiny force down the hillside.
Though this flight drew some flak, most of it was switched to bring down the four B-25s also coming down the hillside toward the ships.
Seizing the opening in the anti-aircraft fire, Dick picked out a transport, its decks lined with troops. On the way he fired his plane's nose guns at several barges also loaded with troops. He then raked the transport from bow to stern, witnesses later reported.
But before Dick could release his bombs on the transport, anti-aircraft fire smashed the tail of his plane. It began to spin but Dick was able to steady the craft and continue his bombing run.
Dick's nose guns fired on a destroyer and then the pilot released two 1,000-pounders. Witnesses said the bombs exploded within 40 feet of the transport's hull.
As his plane then turned away, it was hit again, this time losing an engine. Still, Dick was able to adjust the controls and, no longer burdened by the weight of the bombs, gain altitude.
The official record says Dick's plane was seen slowly heading back toward the base. But then, one witness reported, an engine fell off the plane, which rolled, fell and, as a wing caught the water, cartwheeled into the ocean.
Thus, these few passages from a little-known book have provided the last pieces of a puzzle of a man's life.
Along with the Purple Heart, 2nd Lt. John H. Dunham was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
He is memorialized with a wooden white cross at Fort Bonifacio, Manila.
At last, his family knows where he is this Memorial Day.
St. Petersburg resident Joan Dunham is the wife of one the late lieutenant's nephews.
[Last modified May 30, 2006, 07:18:59]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]