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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Howard's Story

A few years ago my mother did a story on her 2nd cousins life long dream of becoming a pilot and how he lost his life for our country when he was shot down in WWII.  I asked her if I could share it here on my blog post and she thought it was a great idea.

First Lieutenant Howard W. Smith 

                                        March 23, 1923 --- June 10, 1944


June 26, 1944 was a beautiful summer day in Eldorado Township, Nebraska, near the Kansas border.
Assisted by his nephews, Dale and Bryan Bantam (who lived nearby), Laurence Smith was at work on his farm.
Sometime during the day Laurence looked up to see two official looking cars approaching up the lane. His nephew said later his uncle was frozen in place! Laurence knew it meant terrible news about his only son Howard William Smith.
From that day forward, life on this farm was never the same.
Howard would never come down that lane again. He would never be home again except in spirit. 

Because those who gave their lives to save our freedom must not be forgotten, this is our family's story of a lost son.

 These words from the book "The Flying 463rd" with narrative by Harold Rubin express our feelings best:

Howard was the second child and only son of Laurence Little and Una May (Abbott) Smith. He had one sister, Erma Jean Smith (Nicoll) who was two years older. His childhood was spent on the family farm which was named ìSpringbrook Farmî, enjoying the large trees and a natural spring that was unusual for the dry southern Nebraska countryside. His grandfather, William Porter Smith, was a Civil War Veteran who served with Co. A, 2nd Missouri Cavalry.*
As a child growing up, Howard was fascinated with flight and his room was decorated with airplanes.
The family home stands abandoned, but an area of one wall in what was Howardís bedroom still displays the original airplane wallpaper. 

Howard attended District 26 'Springbook School' and graduated from the
8th Grade in 1936. (See next page)
Like many others who attended District 26, he often rode a pony to school. 

*Early family history has fortunately been compiled by Lela Bantam Fidler in her book "The Bantam-Smith Connection -- Clippings From My Grandma's Purse 1926-1991". Anyone interested in early family history will want to contact Lela. 


Howard attended Long Island Kansas High School and graduated with the Class of 1940. One of his classmates was Wilmer Hogan who was able to give me the facts that follow:

"Because of the distance from his home, Howard rented a little house in town from a family named Culbertson. His roommates were brothers named Frances and Phil Benson.
He was a good athlete and played center on Long Island's six-man football team, one of the first six-man teams in Kansas.
He was quiet but a little mischievous--a very nice person."

Footnote: Wilmer also joined the Army Air Corps, was a bombardier on a B-17. When his plane was shot down he broke his ankle and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. 


Because Howard wanted to fly, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserve in May, 1942. He was not called into active duty until November 6, 1942.

He worked in an aviation factory in Bakersfield, California and had enrolled in Junior College there for the fall term. His sister, Erma Jean, had also moved to California and was working in an aviation factory in Inglewood, California.

He began his pre-flight training as a pilot on November 10, 1942 at Kelley Field near San Antonio, Texas.

On March 21, 1943 he was transferred to Cimarron Field, Oklahoma, to begin his aviation cadet training. His first instructional flight was on his 20th birthday, March 23, 1943. When he completed his primary course, he had a total of 65 hours in the air. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his parents while in Oklahoma: 

On May 25, 1943 he was transferred to Strother A. A. Field, Winfield Kansas for more training.

On July 30, 1943 he went to Pampa A. A. Field, Pampa, Texas to attend advanced Flying School, graduating with the Class 43-I on Friday, October 1st 1943. Just two pilots received their wings at that time. The other officer was Edward Weiss. He was older than Howard and had a family. His plane was shot down in May, 1944 and he was held as a POW for a period of time.

On September 30, 1943, Howard was given an Honorary Discharge "for the convenience of the US Army" so he could accept a Commission as Second Lieutenant. This is how the Army promoted an enlisted man to Officer's rank.

Pictures of the planes he flew during his training are shown in the SERVICE RECORD kept by his mother. 

The SERVICE RECORD follows and has been copied just as she wrote it.

After Howard graduated from Flight School and had earned his wings, he came home for a furlough. He was home October 5-11, 1943.

During that time the entire extended family gathered for a picnic. I was six years old and in awe of this strong, handsome soldier. I remember swinging on the tire swing that was tied to a large tree over a creek. Other cousins mention this same memory.

No one knew it would be his last days at home.

Shown with Howard are his mother (Una), Father (Laurence) and sister (Erma Jean). 

Following his time at home on furlough, Howard was assigned to the 19th Bomb Group in Peyote, Texas. There he took part in advanced combat training. When the 19th Bomb Group was disbanded he was assigned to the 463rd Bomb Group, 775th Squadron.

This is a picture of the group that he trained with on the B-17G Flying Fortress airplane: (This is the group with whom he would go overseas) 

Top row left to right: A. J. Brown, Top Turret & Engineer; K. M. Glitch, Radio Operator; H. F. Scott, Tailgunner; W. A. Taft, Right Waist Gunner; R. M. Anderson, Left Waist Gunner; H. T. Tripp, Ballturret Gunner.
Front row Officers left to right: Lt. D. W. Borchert, Bombardier and chinturret gunner; Lt. John S. Frazeur, Pilot; 2nd Lt. H. W. Smith, Co-Pilot; 2nd Lt. L. A. Gatz, Navigator.
Howard was the only one in this photo to have been lost. Why? Fate. How? More information is on the next pages.
Others in the front row survived the war without being taken prisoner or shot down. Those in the back row were aboard a plane that was shot down 4 days after Howardís plane was lost. They were able to escape the plane by parachute. All were taken prisoners of war but were returned home in 1945.
 I spoke by e-mail with the grandson of John Frazeur. He was searching for more information about his grandfather and could not add any information I didn't already have, nor could I tell him more about his grandfather. He commented on the "cocky 40's attitude" in the grins of Howard and his grandfather. (John S. Frazeur would later serve during the Korean and Viet Nam wars.) 


When Howard completed the advanced training, his crew was sent to Lakeland, Florida. As part of the 463rd Bombardment Group, 775th Squadron, he flew as co-pilot of a B-17G Flying Fortress plane with the crew pictured on the page just before this one. The Aircraft number was 42-31841.

From Lakeland, the 463rd Bomb Group was sent to join the battle. The ground support crews left on ships and rejoined the air crews at Celone Army Air Base in Italy. The flight crews had stops in South America and Dakar, Africa. A letter (below) from Howard tells his travel until he reached Dakar, Africa. On March 15, 1944 they arrived at the Foggia, Italy airfield. 


This was Howard's last base, in Italy. When a crew was shot down, another crew moved into the tent--often before all of the effects had even been removed. 


On the next page are the highlighted missions we can document that Howard flew. Through May 18, 1944 he flew with his original crew
on the original plane 42-31841. (The information is taken from several sources and may in some cases be inaccurate, but it is as close to the actual actions as possible.) 

While Howardís crew was on a rest, another crew flew that plane and it was hit and lost on May 24, 1944. The pilot at that time was a Lt. Orf. All of the crew bailed out and were made prisoners of war, except for the pilot, who was impaled on a branch of a tree and was killed. The co-pilot was Ed Weiss, who graduated with Howard from Pilot School. The entire crew was taken Prisoners of War until 1945 when they returned safely. After that plane was lost, Howard was promoted to pilot and flew several different planes, with different crews.
One of the worst missions Howard would have flown prior to June 10 was to Ploesti on May 18, 1944. (This oil field produced 1/3 of all of Germanyís oil supply and was a primary target for the U. S.) Exceedingly bad weather was encountered that morning and the Air Force sent out a recall signal which was received by all groups but the one to which Howard was assigned. Making the lone run on Ploesti, about 150 of Goeringís yellow nose fighters attacked their formation of 35 planes. Six B-17s were lost to flak and the fighters. Finally a large force of P-38ís appeared and drove off the Luftwaffe. If they had not arrived, all of the planes would have been lost. For this and their other missions the Group received a Commendation from the USAAF Commander-in-Chief General Spaatz.
After the loss of the 42-31841 on May 24, 1944, Howard was promoted to Pilot and flew these planes: Pictures and what happened to these planes is found in the APPENDIX to this story. The 4 planes with * after their names were lost.

A/C #42-31832 "The Biggast Bird" 25 May 1944

A/C # 42-97536 No known nickname 26 and 27 May 1944* 

A/C # 42-31742 No known Nickname 28 May 1944*

A/C # 31821 "Mary Lou" 31 May 1944*

A/C #42-102909 "Nobody's Baby" 4 June 1944

A/C #42-31809 "Nameless" 6 June 1944* 

FINAL DAY: JUNE 10, 1944.
On June 10, 1944 Howard was assigned to pilot A/C #42-37997 "Miss Behaven". This is an earlier photo of the actual plane: 

Top Row L - R: Hugh Diggins; Grover Jenkins; Scott Rousseau; George Wray; Lloyd Upchurch; Front Row L - R: Malcolm Coulman; Kent Polkinghorne; Frank Gilbert; Edward Biga; John Palmer All of the highlighted names are men who were on the plane with Howard on June 10th, 1944. Not shown is Joseph Russo, who was the 10th man on the crew. All 10 were lost.

On June 10, 1944, led by their commander, Major Allyn, the "Irish Orphans" with 27 planes flying in formation dropped 81 tons of bombs on the Mestre, Italy marshalling yards. One plane (Howard's) did not return. 

The account given in the above Army Status Letter differs from the classified Missing in action reports (MACRs) that follow. In 1944 the Army did not tell all that it knew.
Damaged? The plane exploded in mid-air! 

The 1944 published report indicated ìfive chutes left the plane before it crashed into the sea. P-38ís went down to drop life rafts for the men.î (We know this didnít happen). But when Air-Sea rescue arrived none of the men were to be found.î However, the MACR reports gave no indication that any airmen were alive when the parachutes were blown out of the plane as it exploded.

 Crew aboard the plane with Howard:

The asterisks in front of the name indicated Missing in Action and the crosses indicated Killed in action. This list was taken from a book that was printed after the war ended.

According to Army Air Corps procedures Howard, as pilot, would have been the last one to leave the plane if there had been time for anyone to do so.

Eye witness accounts by airmen in other planes have been de- classified. They are known as MACRs (Missing Air Crew Reports) and now can be found on the internet. A transcribed copy of MACR #5846 is included in the appendix of this story.

Statement given by Staff Sgt. Jack Raille:

"The first time I noticed Ship No. 48-37997, the whole right wing was leaking gas. There was a trail of black smoke from number 4 engine. I noticed the right wing burning and the plane fell out of formation. A few seconds later the right wing fell off and the ship exploded. I saw 5 chutes open, I believe these to have been blown out of the ship."

From Lt. Lloyd Gatz:

"At about 0936 ship No. 42-37997 slid out of formation, rolled over on its back and started spinning. Fire broke out in the right wing and the ship blew up. I saw no chutes open."

From Staff Sgt. Jerome Beshener:

"At about 1030 I saw ship No. 42-37997 and smoke was coming out of the vents of the right wing. The right wing started folding up and the ship fell out of formation. The ship then went into a dive and a spin and at about 5,000 feet it blew up and I then saw 5 chutes open."

From Staff Sgt. William A. Taft:

"I noticed No. 1 engine was leaking oil and gasoline was coming out of the right wing, with traces of black smoke coming from No. 4 engine. The wing started turning black and crumbling and a flame was visible as the ship went into a side slip to the right of the formation. After the ship dropped about 1000 yards the ship blew up and four chutes opened from men blown clear of the plane, while the 5th chute was from the man (Upchurch) that climbed out of the tail."

The eye-witnesses felt the chutes were blown out by the explosion. With the plane in a dive and spin, the men would probably not have been able to bail out. The parachutes were blown out by the force of the explosion and it is quite likely that all of those aboard were killed when the plane exploded. I have corresponded with the tail gunner Upchurch's nephew and he too feels certain all of the men were killed when the plane blew up.

It seems obvious all these many years later that those at home would have been better served by being told that there could not have been survivors. But the army felt they needed to classify these documents as CONFIDENTIAL, not just Howardís but ALL the planes that went down. And perhaps they felt it would be easier to hold out a possibility of someone surviving. Servicemen were only declared dead 1 year and a day after they were lost, and then only if no further evidence was received to support "a continued presumption of survival".

Believing he was Missing in Action and never found was especially hard on Howardís mother. She worried that he was wandering the streets in Italy and she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a period of time. Lawrence decided to lease his farm. They moved to California to be close to their only daughter,
Erma and her family.

 Because they were flying such dangerous missions with little time to rest, Howard wrote fewer letters so there is less first-hand information available but he did not want his parents to worry and when he wrote is was to try to reassure them.
He sent this poem to his parents a few days before his plane was lost.

The 26th of April 1945 was the 222nd, and final, combat mission flown by the 463rd BG. Final statistics for the Group's operations were: 

                                Total Sorties                             6,966 
                                Combat Hours                         45,764
                                Bomb Tonnage Dropped         16,868 

                                Enemy Planes Destroyed        80
                                Damaged/ Destroyed              44

463rd Planes Lost In Combat : 106 (I believe Howard's plane to have been # 30)

Awards for the 463rd: Two Unit Citations and 22 Silver Stars; 313 DFC's; 303 Purple Hearts;

2,196 Air Medals; 4 Legion of Merits; 6 Soldier's Medals; and 42 Bronze Stars. 
Posthumously Howard was promoted to First Lieutenant and received: 

Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters
Purple Heart 


The desire to know more about the life of my childhood hero, my second cousin HOWARD W. SMITH, has been in the back of my mind for more than 50 years.

Not much was said in our family about his death for more than one reason.

First, no one really knew what happened that fateful day when his plane was shot down over enemy waters. The events were Classified Information at that time and for many years to come.

Second, his death was so traumatic that his mother had a nervous breakdown. His parents moved to California to be near their only surviving child, Howardís sister Erma Nicoll and her family. No one in the Bantam-Smith extended family wanted to cause more pain by discussing the loss in the years that followed. Because of the miles between, Ermaís only child, Diane Nicoll Hensley, grew up not knowing many of the family in Nebraska.

Finally, until the advent of the internet and the declassification of WWII records this information was almost impossible to find. The fact Howardís surname was SMITH didnít help the search.

When I requested information, the National Personnel Records Center told me that due to a fire at their Center, the records were not in their files. "Fire destroyed the major portion of records of Army military personnel for the period 1912 through 1959. Complete personnel records cannot be reconstructed."

I "stumbled" across what records I have copied here, thanks to the Internet and Google. There is a website called that has posted many WWII records, including the Missing Airmen Crew Reports. There is also a website for the cemetery in Italy and another for the World War II Memorial. www. also has information. And like many people who search for the past, I felt that there was more than luck involved--an unseen force wanted Howardís story told. The Service Record that Howard's mother kept so carefully is priceless. I am so thankful to have had the privilege of borrowing this and other valuable papers and books so that this story can be told.

Diane and I worked together on this project because we were sure Howardís memory needed to be preserved. His story is one we can all be very proud to pass on to our own children and grandchildren. He learned a difficult aircraft in a short amount of time. He was lost through no fault of his own. May his sacrifices never be forgotten.

We pray for peace that none will ever again be asked to give their life for their country.

If you have memories to add to the story, or just want to make contact, here are our e-mail addresses:

---Janice Bantam Boehler 

Diane Nicoll Hensley 

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