A true hero

Friday, March 11, 2005

I'm writing this in response to Paul Allee's Feb. 27 letter to the editor.

On behalf of the Don Dinwiddie family, I want to thank Mr. Allee for his kind words about my father-in-law and his respectful praise of all veterans of World War II. Mr. Allee was one of the fortunate people who had the pleasure of knowing and working with him. Don was a truly remarkable man in his quiet dignity and humility, and he spoke little of the war until his later years.

Because he knew of my interest in aviation and military history, I was fortunate to have him directly relate to me some of his experiences. Additionally, some of what I have learned has come to light only in the last few days after his death. Other information has been gleaned from historical records found in the U.S. Air Force archives and other repositories. It is all coming together to paint a portrait of a quiet man who was once a warrior in the greatest armada that every took wing. His story is so intriguing, yet it is universal to those to whom we refer as the Greatest Generation.

Don grew up in the small community of Higbee, Mo. He graduated from high school in 1941 and enlisted in the military shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He volunteered for the Army Air Force and was assigned as a radio operator and gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress in the 303rd Bomb Group stationed in Molesworth, England.

His crew flew its first combat missions in late November 1943. In addition to the obvious terror of having to face enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, too often on those early missions the bomber crews were also plagued with faulty equipment, tactical mistakes and human error as the Allied military planners tried to perfect the technique of high-altitude daylight strategic bombing. It was something that had never been attempted before to this degree in the history of military aviation, and they were basically learning by trial and error.

A bomber crew was tasked with completing 25 missions before being rotated out of combat. Few airmen survived 25 missions without being wounded, killed in action or shot down and taken prisoner.

Don's crew was shot down on its ninth mission on Jan. 29, 1944, during an attack on the heavily defended industrial area of Frankfurt, Germany. After crossing much of Belgium and almost over Germany, one of the plane's four engines had to be shut down due to mechanical problems. Due to the reduced air speed, they were unable to stay up with the rest of the bombers and the safety of their combined defensive firepower.

Just short of the target, they found themselves completely out of the formation and had to jettison their bombs and turn back toward England, a situation that made them extremely vulnerable to enemy fighters.

Able to enter a cloud layer for part of the return trip, they were able to hid themselves for several miles. Their luck ran out, however, when they broke out of the clouds over a German airfield in Belgium, and a Focke Wulfe 190 fighter rose to attack them. The FW 190 picked them to pieces, killing one of the gunners, severely wounding the navigator, bombardier and tail gunner as well as incapacitating one of the remaining three engines.

The B-17 lost too much altitude to allow them to parachute to safety, so the pilot, Lt. James Fowler, successfully made a wheels-up landing in a farm field near the village of Soire-Saint Gery, Belgium. Several of the citizens, led by the priest of the local Catholic parish, mobilized to help them.

All of the crew members sustained wounds to varying degrees, but those who were physically able were taken to place of hiding and safety. The seriously wounded navigator, bombardier and tail gunner were taken to a hospital and were eventually captured by the Germans soon after.

The six ambulatory crew members split up and attempted to evade capture even though the Germans had sent troops to search for them in the vicinity of the crash site. Don and Lieutenant Fowler, with the help of the Belgian underground, successfully evaded capture for over four months. They were eventually betrayed by a French physician purportedly working for the French resistance but who was actually a Nazi sympathizer. He delivered them to the Germans at a prearranged road block while pretending to be driving them to a clandestine meeting with other resistance fighters.

Don and Fowler were eventually taken to Stalag Luft IV, a prison camp near the Baltic Sea in Poland. In the latter weeks of the war, the prisoners were taken on a forced march by the captors who were hoping to avoid a confrontation with the Russian forces that were advancing from the east. Don was eventually liberated by British troops after several days of living in the elements with little food and not shelter.

To put all of this in perspective, it must be remembered that all of the events described herein began in 1942 when Don enlisted in the Army Air Force. It ended when he was repatriated to the United States in November 1945. In between, he left his small-town surroundings, was trained as a bomber crewman, flew nine harrowing missions through enemy flak and fighters, was shot down and wounded, evaded capture for four months, was betrayed by a French Nazi sympathizer, was held prisoner for over a year and had to endure a forced march across a hostile portion of Europe. All of this happened before his 22nd birthday.

In conclusion, I'd like to note that one of Don's adamant wishes was that he not be given any military honors at his funeral. He didn't think he had done anything worthy of special recognition.

This puzzled me until I thought it through. Don was the kind of person who did what he had to do, just like thousands of other men who heeded the call to duty during World War II. Even though his experiences seem unique to us today, what he did wasn't uncommon 60 years ago. I believe he felt that what had happened to him was merely a part of the job that had to be done, and that heroic deeds were being performed every hour of every day during those trying times.

His war was a private one. In fact, only after his death did we learn he had been awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and an Air Medal.

In upholding his wishes, we didn't have full military honors at his funeral, although he was certainly entitled to them. We didn't have an honor guard, the rifle salute or the playing of taps. Begging his forgiveness, we did make one concession and had the coffin draped with the flag that he loved so dearly and defended with all that he had to offer.

Like Mr. Allee said in his letter, Don Dinwiddie never asked for anything in exchange for what he gave his country. He so very well represents his generation, which is indeed the greatest. A salute to them all, living or departed.

Terry Irwin resides in Gordonville.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: