The following story was written in March 2009 on my blog, The Ties That Bind” and is re-posted here.
Our trip to Nebraska in 1989 was not unlike many we had made in past years. Highway 76 goes through eastern Colorado where it is dry and basically lifeless. Oh, there’s the occasional rest stop or gas station, but for the most part all there is to see is sage brush and more sage brush. As you cross the state line into Nebraska you see the “Nebraska -…the good life” sign. Soon the scenery begins to change. Rows and rows of green corn stalks all of which seem to be standing at attention saluting the sun. Field after field line both sides of the highway. Loving history, it’s hard for me not to think of the original homesteaders. I can picture those men and women struggling in the heat behind a plow pulled by a team of horses. If they could just see the legacy of farms today, I’m sure they would be amazed.
My thoughts wander back to when “going home” meant hot summer days and quiet moonlit nights when the only sound you heard was the chirping of crickets. Days spent riding on an uncles tractor or walking to town to see Grandma at the library. Going to the Evers “home place” for a Sunday dinner of fresh fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade bread, just picked sweet corn and for desert ice cream. Not just any ice cream either – homemade ice cream that we all took a turn at the crank to make. To top the ice cream – strawberries that had been prepared earlier with a little sugar and set in the fridge to juice – oh my – just like heaven!
But this trip would be different. A family reunion with aunts, uncles and cousins, some I had not seen for many years. We would be gathering at “home” – this year was special because my Uncle Willis, who had not been home for 47 years, would be returning and we all wanted to be with him.
My Dad is the youngest of five children, he and his brother Willis, being just a year apart, were very close. Growing up they spent many hours playing cops and robbers or walking through the corn fields hunting pheasants or rabbits.
In 1936 the two of them purchased a Harley-Davidson Police Special motorcycle for $65 and headed to Minnesota to work the harvest season. Willis was the daredevil of the two. He would stand on the motorcycle and ride it down the gravel road balancing on the seat. I would imagine that was something grandma was not to happy about!
It wasn’t a surprise, when Willis enlisted in the Army Calvary in 1940, that my Dad followed his lead and enlisted a couple weeks later. Willis was sent to Ft. Meade, South Dakota and trained with the Fourth Calvary for combat on a motorcycle. He was sent to Arkansas where he received training riding through the thick woods. But what he really wanted to do was to learn to fly airplanes.
Willis went after his dream to fly. He wrote numerous letters home to his family telling of his adventures learning to fly. This letter was written November 28, 1942……
“Dear Mother & Dad,
It has been to hazy to go out and fly most of this morning. I just got through writing to George and Lucille. I have a little over 2 hours to fly yet to get in my 60 hours. We had our last day of ground school yesterday. We are having our graduation dance here tonight.
Yesterday I took a solo ship up and started to see how high it would climb. When I got up to 7000 ft the air started to get thinner. I got up to 12,300 ft. above sea level, the the motor started to slow up and the plane would climb no higher, so I leveled off and made a 90 deg level turn and lost over 500 ft. so you can see the air is pretty thin up there.
Our class came out pretty good here. There has been less washouts in our class for its size than any other class that went through this school. The lower class have already as many men washed out now as we had all through the course and they still have a month to go.
There were three of us that started from South Dakota and all three of us are still going strong.
I had a picture taken on the flight home of me in a plane ready to take off. I am going to mail it one of these days when I think of it.
The days are fairly warm here. The nights get rather cold. If froze a little a couple nights last week. There a lot of flowers blooming here yet even though it froze a couple times.
I’ll drop you a letter when I get to my next station.
Willis received part of his training at Ryan Field, Hemet, California and was part of Class 43D. He received his Silver Wings on April 12, 1943 at Williams Field in Chandler, Arizona. He truly loved flying, the excitement, the adrenaline rush that went with flying and maneuvering among the clouds. By 1943 the war in the Pacific was raging and fighter pilots were in demand.
When I was a kid I just hated road trips – the endless miles that never seemed to end were almost too much to endure. The highlight of the trip would be stopping for lunch at Howard Johnson’s. Occasionally I was given a dollar to spend in the gift shop – that was fun. As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to enjoy road trips and realized that part of the fun in arriving at our destination is the joy of the journey. One of the best parts of a road trip with my hubby is the chance to really delve into conversation. We chat about everything under the sun from what color to paint the bathroom to politics. Our conversation on our trip in 1989 mostly consisted of me reminiscing about days gone by and telling him about the Uncle I had never met.
Uncle Willis hadn’t been home since 1943 so our conversation seemed to center around the events of WWII. We all complain about the price of gas these days, but, in spite of the price we still seem to be able to purchase as much as we want. During WWII it wasn’t that simple – you not only had to have enough money to pay for the gas but you had to have the right number of ration stamps too. Most items that were needed to help the war effort required ration stamps. If you ran out of stamps – well you were just out of luck until you got your next ration book.
Families and communities really had to work together to keep there homes going. People were encouraged to plant vegetable gardens to supplement their pantries and take the pressure off the countries food supply. The gardens were dubbed “Victory Gardens”.
We stop in Julesburg for gas and I take over driving. I guess we are both lost in our own thoughts now because we head down the road in silence. I’m anxious to see my cousins, but, I can’t get my Uncles letters out of my mind.
1943 – Letter from Willis to brother George
“If the gadgets get out of hand get a fire hose a squirt them full of cold water.
Wish you could have been here the last couple of days. Raymond met me in Ogden, Utah then we came on home together on the train. What a dirty, slow train. They came around in the evening and lit the gas lamps in the car. We reached North Platte about noon and were told that we would have ten minutes. We went about a block and stopped in a cafe for a hamburger. When we came back out the train was starting to pull out of the station. We really had to stretch out to make the train. And the darn old conductor stood there on the platform with a dry look on is face. He wouldn’t even help us up on the platform.
We have been up late every nite since we got here.
Bertus was here when I got here, but he had to leave the next day. Then we got word from Johanna that she would be in on the same train that Bertus was leaving on. Bertus got on when Joe got off and they never got to see each other. Lucille came back home with us. We have all been on the go every since.
Bill Buss and family came down this evening. This ought to be a big fat letter, there are three of us writing now.
Ray and I are leaving on the train at Kearney tomorrow noon. I am going with Ray to Twin Falls and will stay over night there before going back to the desert at Monroe. How I hate to go back to that windy, dusty, sandy, dirty old place.
Did you ever see an Officer milk cows, wipe dishes, sweep floors, etc.? If you didn’t you should have been here.”
June 22, 1943
Dear Mother & Dad,
Here I am down at the Naval air station at San Diego, California. This morning we left March Field this morning and went to Glendale. From there I caught a ride in a B-34 bomber to this station. There is a P-38 squadron station here with the Navy. We sleep in Navy quarters, eat Navy food etc. We are out on an Island in the bay. It is nice and cool here. Everything looks pretty nice, at least so far.
Hey what do you know two Waves just walked by the quarters. It’s the first time I actually saw a Wave.
How is the harvest coming back there? Did the grain come out OK?
I saw a couple boats like the ones Delbert said he was assigned on
They have quite an assortment of Navy planes here.
We will not be flying for a day or so yet as our flying equipment hasn’t arrived and we have to
have a physical check to see that we are in flying condition. Say these quarters we got here are really swell. They are the best I have ever had in the Army. We even have inner spring mattress in our beds.
I would like to see some of the pictures you took while I was at home. Would you send some of them. I can return them again as I will not have much room to pack them around.
Hope you are all well. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.
Not long after passing the Nebraska state line we start spotting the Pioneer Village billboards. Pioneer Village is in Minden, Nebraska and houses many of the items the pioneers would have used as well as a replica of an old time village. I mention to my hubby that one of my great grandpa’s buggies is displayed there and we make plans to see it. We lived in Minden for a year in 1956 while my dad was stationed in Morocco. I tell him about the old house we lived in and how the mice would run across the kitchen floor while we watched TV in the next room – well they did until Mom took control. Feeling the affects of all the coffee we’ve drank we stop at one of the many rest stops through Nebraska to check out the facilities and stretch our legs a bit. Once we’re back on the road it’s not long and we are again chatting about Uncle Willis.
In September of 1943 Willis was sent to Port Moresby, New Guinea. He joined the 8th Fighter Group, 80th Squadron as a fighter pilot serving under Maj. Edward “Porky” Cragg. They call themselves the “Headhunters”, a name that Maj. Cragg came up with to honor the local tribesman who helped rescue many downed pilots to safety and also to show their fighting spirit.
A patch was designed to depict a proud Papuan Chief and two bones in the shape of a “v” for victory below the head. The original patch was designed by Msgt. Yale Saffor who had been an artist with the Walt Disney studios. Through the years the patch has gone under a few changes, but is still worn today by this squadron.
At Port Moresby, Willis joins well known Aces such as Norb Ruff, Edward “Porky” Cragg, Louis Schriber and many others. He writes home that the plane he is assigned is a P-38 Lightening and states “it’s old but it fly’s good”. This plane was flown earlier in New Guinea by Pearl Harbor famed George Welch. George Welch was one of the only pilots at Pearl Harbor to get a plane off the ground to fight the Japanese that invaded Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
Soldiers stationed overseas used a mailing system called V-Mail during WWII. The letter was censored and copied onto microfilm. Using this system saved space on the transports for war materials. Once the microfilm reached the U.S. it would be printed on a specialized form which reduced the size of the letter to about 4×5 and then mailed to the recipient.
September 11, 1943
Dear Mother & Dad,
Here it is 6:00 P.M. I am writing this letter at our club, a cement floor a few poles to hold up the roof and the sides are covered with screen. We have a bar, a radio, phonograph, tables, chairs and because we are having a party tonight we have a piano, just think a piano. Lt. Mcgee, he shot his 5th down yesterday, is playing the piano. Some of the fellows just brought us some flowers and they are decorating the place.
Lt. Hill, one of the fellows that went to Seattle with me is here in my squadron. He shot his first zero down yesterday. He told us all about it when he got back.
This morning another fellow and I went down to the beach and went swimming. It was a lot of fun. You would be surprised at the different fellows that are in the squadron. One was a Missionary, one a clerk in Washington D.C., one a motorcycle racer and etc. So far I have not heard from anyone.
October 15, 1943
I just got your letter of August 19th. For a while I thought maybe you would be sent out of the States before I would have a chance to write to you again.
So you don’t like the place where you are stationed now. I know that you would think this place much worse. For breakfast we had French fried toast. For dinner we had Bully beef cold, dehydrated potatoes and carrots. How I’d like to get a good meal of fresh vegetables.
So far as I know Elmer Hinricks is stationed south of here. I wrote home for his address. Maybe I will get a chance to look him up while on leave if Mother sends me his address in time.
Half of the time we fly over jungle the other half over water. I was close enough to see in the cockpit of 4 Jap plans as they passed me. But, I have not fired on them as yet. A lot of ack ack burst near me while flying over different targets.
I wrote Joe a letter yesterday I sent along 3 pictures I took here. She will send them home to the folks. You can ask Mother to send them to you.
It has been raining almost every night here for the past week. Our rainy season has just begun.
It’s time for chow now so I’ll write again later.
Sincerely – Willis
As we get closer to the Minden exit I’m starting to feel a little anxious. Its been a long time since I’ve seen some of my cousins and anticipating the events of our reunion is causing some anxiety. I can’t help but wonder what kind of anxiousness and anxiety my uncle might have felt before jumping into his P-38 Lightning to fight the Japanese. Like my Uncle, who was only 23 years old when he was sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, most of the men were young, fearless and invincible – most barely out of their teens. I’m convinced that most of them were hell-bent (excuse my language) on avenging the men and women killed at Pearl Harbor. I think their mindset was such that they were not going to allow this to happen again.
As I read my Uncles letter of October 25, 1943 I cannot sense any fear. But, I can definitely feel the excitement and the adrenaline rush that was racing through him.
Dear Mother & Dad,
Talk about thrills, I have had enough for a little while. We got into a big fight. I was flying on our Commanding Officers wing when I shot at a Japs plane. I gave him a long burst and he burst into flames. Then a couple got on my tail and the tracers flew by. I dived into a cloud and played hide and seek with five of them. I got several holes in my plane, but they done no damage. Lady Luck was sure kind to me. Mother Nature was very thoughtful, putting a big white cloud right there for me to use for protection.
About six different Japs shot at me. Incidentally I was flying my own plane. It was just assigned to me. It’s an old plane but it fly’s good. It sure saved me from a long swim back.
Captain Ruff, a pilot who went back home from this
squadron has your address. He is to drop you a line
and tell you where and what I am doing.
I just saw the film from my gun camera. It showed
the Jap plane burning.
A war correspondent came here and took my name and home
town. You may find a write up in the paper about it.
As my family gathered in Nebraska it became a time of reflection for my Dad, his brothers and sister. For you must understand that this was not a normal family reunion.
When the news arrived that Willis was missing in action on November 10, 1943 it was devastating. Is he dead? Is he alive? Has he been captured by the Japanese? Is he being tortured? For families with loved ones MIA it is torture, the not knowing for sure, the hope that they will be found – it’s all to painful and makes it difficult to really carry on. In conversations with my grandmother years later she expressed to me that she still held out hope that he was alive somewhere. Although I think she mentally accepted he was gone her heart would not accept it. A letter written by my grandfather to his missing son tells of the longing to hear from him that he is alive and well.
Upland, November 21, 1943
Dear Willis Evers,
Once more I am going to write to you and see what can be found out of your whereabouts, for on the 10th of Nov. we were advised you were missing since Nov. 2nd over New Britton, But. Dorothy Dwinel says she can not believe it saying that the 4th her husband said you were made 2nd Lieutenant and everything was well. Now what shall we think Missing in action can mean many a different thing. The suspense for us is great in not knowing what has happened at Bougainvillea as 14 were reported gone down on the 2nd day of November and 2 of them had reported again some time later rather came back so to say. Just wonder has some ones name bin changed with yours of what may it be that gives this big scare and grief. We have bin hoping and praying for your safe return ever since and oh how we would like to hear or see a sense of life from you again. The account of you from the 25th must have bin printed from coast to coast also on the radio networks.
Now please if it is possible for you to let us hear of you again as the suspense is terrible and on our nerves.
Please let us know what has taken place out there……
Your Father and Mother
On November 2, 1943, F/O Willis F. Evers was flying wing man to Louis Schriber near Simpson Harbor during the battle over Rabaul. F/O Evers was shot down and died that day defending his country and his fellow pilots. In the book “Attack and Conquer – The 8th Fighter Group in World War II” written by John C. Stanaway and Lawrence J. Hickey a description of my Uncle’s plane being shot down tells the story. November 2, 1943 was referred to as “Bloody Tuesday” – part of the account goes as follows:
“ Louis Schriber and his wingman, Flight Officer Willis
Evers, were behind Cragg over Simpson Harbor and followed him down in the bounce on the climbing Zeros. Schriber’s burst missed the Zero he had aimed at, but he could see Evers set fire to his target and the Zero fell off in a spin to crash in the harbor. Schriber kept diving and fired at another Zero which began smoking but disappeared when the P38 passed over it.When he looked around again Schriber could not find Evers, so he decided to leave the area and get out into St. George’s Channel to the southeast. Other P38’s covering were out there and he joined them. Another Zero had popped up on the way and Schriber shot its tail assembly off.”
December 2, 1943 a letter arrives from Lt. Allen Hill and Lt. Dwinell – and the hope of Willis’ return begins to fade………
I couldn’t quiet figure out why my Mom was calling me on that day in 1989 – our conversation went something like this:
Me: – Hello – oh hi Mom, what are you doing?”
Mom – You’re never going to
Me – ?????????
Mom – I still can’t believe it!
Me – ???????
Mom – Are you sitting down yet?
Me – (now fearing something terrible has happened) Just tell me whats wrong…….
Mom – We just got a call from your Uncle Ray
Me – ??????????
Mom – We don’t know all the details yet, but, he just got a call from the Army –
They have found Willis’ plane and will be bringing him home……
Me – What? You’ve got to be kidding……….
The phone lines were hot that day with the news traveling from state to state letting everyone know that Willis’ plane had been found. It was a shock, but, plans were made quickly to meet in Nebraska for his return.
In 1986 a surveyor, walking through the jungle on the island of New Britain near the village of Ulagunan, unexpectedly discovered the wreckage of a P38-F Lightning. For 43 years the plane and its contents had been undisturbed. This discovery would put an end to the mystery of what happened to F/O Willis F. Evers on November 2, 1943. It took another 3 years before the Army would notify our family of the discovery.
So on September 15, 1989 we gathered at “home” – brothers, sister, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends to welcome him home at last. Willis was laid to rest next to his parents John and Lena Evers at St. Peters Cemetery, Hildreth, Nebraska. Fifteen members from the 1st Infantry, Bravo Battery from Ft. Leavenworth, provided military pallbearers and the gunner group for the 21 gun salute. Fourteen Hildreth Veterans of Foreign Wars provided an honor guard. A flyover by F-4 Phantom jets flew over the ceremony tipping their wings as a final salute to a young WWII Pilot who had finally come home.
It was an unusual reunion to say the least. For those that knew Willis it brought back a variety of memories. From my aunties I learned how he would give them rides on his motorcycle, they were just young girls, but oh how they loved that. In my fathers eyes I could see the pain that still lingered there and how time had not erased the memory of that long ago day in 1943 when he learned his brother was MIA. But, I could also sense his relief knowing what happened to him.
We welcomed Uncle Willis home and hope he can now rest in peace in the arms of God and his parents in heaven……….
May he forever soar with the eagles