Bob Lee Smith was 8 years old in the summer of 1944. When school was out, his shoes came off. He would play outside with his brother, Barney, until the sun disappeared down the Old Wire Road on the other side of the Flint River, and it was time to catch lightning bugs.
At their home in Roberta, he and his family would listen to static-filled news reports from the war on a Zenith radio. The three older Smith brothers were scattered across the oceans. Dozier and Raymond were with the Marines in the Pacific theater. Welborn was a staff sergeant in the Army Air Forces, flying bombing missions over Europe.
Of all those summer days, there is one he remembers most. It was Friday, July 7, 1944, three days after Americans raised the flag at Iwo Jima, perhaps the most iconic image in American military history.
His mother, Nora, had walked across the yard toward the highway. She was wearing her apron and holding a small, yellow envelope from Western Union.
“She was scared to death of those telegrams,’’ Bob Lee said. “Everybody was. We lost a lot of boys in the war.’’
When her eyes nervously glanced down at the typewritten message, she collapsed to the ground. Bob Lee and Barney rushed to her side. A neighbor helped them carry her to the house.
Welborn had always been the most faithful of the Smith boys to write home. His last letter to his mama and daddy — the postmark no longer legible now — closed with these words: “Not much to write about, just to let you all know I’m still getting along fine. Write soon and don’t worry. Love, Your Son Welborn.’’
Nora Smith never stopped worrying.
The first telegram, issued from the secretary of war, said Welborn Smith was one of 10 crew members on board a B-24 that had been shot down by German artillery over the Netherlands. He and the others were reported as missing in action. A follow-up telegram 18 days later confirmed that he had been killed on June 21, 1944, two weeks after his 20th birthday.
The Smiths never got over it. Nora wore her grief like a tear-stained locket until her death in 1986. For many years, she corresponded across the miles with the families of the other crew members.
Her husband, Emmett Smith, was also shaken to the core, only he kept his emotions in a knot. The only time Bob Lee ever saw his father cry was when the telegram came.
(The family soon moved to Macon, where Emmett Smith and his sons owned and operated car dealerships.)
Fifty years later, after returning from a trip to Holland, Bob Lee published a small, 32-page book with additional details about his brother’s death. He called it, “A Note to Nora.’’
A postscript has been writing itself for almost 25 years, as Bob Lee tirelessly led efforts to locate two crew members whose bodies were never found.
One of them, Jimmie Collins, was laid to rest last June in Sylacauga, Alabama. The story of Bob Lee’s quest is featured in the current issue of The American Legion magazine.
‘He was her favorite’
Welborn Hill Smith was his mama’s boy. Sure, Nora had four other sons and a daughter, June, who died at age 2. But she never tried to hide her fondness for her middle son, the one they called “Webby.’’
“She was a wonderful mother, but he was her favorite, and he should have been,’’ Bob Lee said. “We had one car and, if she needed to go somewhere, he was always the one who took her.’’
He was studious and polite. He never missed a day of school from the first grade through high school. He helped his father on the farm and at the saw mill.
After he graduated, he worked as a welder in Macon, then followed his older brothers into the service in 1942. Dozier advised him against enlisting in the Marines, suggesting that he join the Army Air Corps.
Welborn had never been on a plane, except the one he and Barney had made out scrap wood when they were kids. They hung it from a tree and pretended they were flying.
Raymond was badly wounded in a land mine explosion at Guadalcanal and was awarded the Purple Heart. Dozier was in the Pacific, awaiting the invasion of Japan, when the atomic bombs were dropped and the war was over.
Welborn’s life ended in a field in the land of windmills and wooden shoes. He was an engineer and gunner for a B-24 Liberator. It was nicknamed the “Connie” and operated from an air base in Bungay, England.
In the weeks following D-Day and the push of Allied forces across Europe, his crew had completed a bombing mission over German-occupied land. They were less than a half-hour from their home base when they mysteriously turned back. It is unclear whether it might have been an instrument malfunction or a navigation error.
The plane was in distress, with its landing gear down, when it was hit by enemy fire — a violation of the rules of war. (The aircraft should have been allowed to land and the Americans taken as prisoners.)
Welborn died when his parachute failed to open. Sgt. Peter Bausana, of Michigan, also parachuted from the plane and was the lone survivor. He was captured by the Germans and forced to carry Welborn’s heavy parachute as punishment.
The others died on impact, their bodies badly burned. Collins, a second lieutenant and the co-pilot, and Staff Sgt. Edward McHugh, the radio operator, were missing in the charred wreckage.
The crew members were buried in a church cemetery near Hoofddorp, not far from the graves of crew members from the British Royal Air Force.
Three months after the war ended, the bodies were reinterred to Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, where the graves of 8,301 American soldiers are marked by white crosses and stars of David.
At the request of the Smith family, Welborn’s body was brought home to Georgia, where he was buried in the family plot at the city cemetery in Roberta.
Falling into place
In 1992, Bob Lee and his wife, Teresa, went to Holland on a trip. He had learned about a Dutch man named Jacob Wolfert, who had been a fireman during the war and had participated in giving the fallen crewmen a Christian burial.
Bob Lee was not sure Wolfert was still alive. At the airport in Amsterdam, he asked a woman at an information booth if she knew where the village of Nieuw-Vennep was located. As luck would have it, it was where she lived. She told him Wolfert was 89 years old and she would put him in contact with him.
Everything fell into place. Bob Lee arranged to have an interpreter and meet with Wolfert and his wife. Wolfert told him the story of the crash and the disgraceful behavior and scandalous remarks of the German soldiers after the bodies of the Americans had been pulled from the plane.
Wolfert had been a member of the Netherland Freedom Fighters and the Dutch underground. He carried his identity in his shoe. To Bob Lee, the man was a saint.
He also took them to the crash site. He said he had found a Bible belonging to pilot John Nicholson and a note that Welborn had written to his mother.
Bob Lee was emotionally charged by the experience. He also was saddened to learn that the bodies of Collins, the crew member from Alabama, and McHugh, of East Rutherford, New Jersey, had never been found. He spent the next five years working with the Army and Dutch officials to excavate the crash site.
Finally, in 1997, the remains of what were believed to be Collins were recovered. It took another 18 years for DNA testing to confirm it. (McHugh is still classified as missing.)
There is a memorial to the crew at a military museum near Amsterdam. It is made from the fuselage of a B-24. There also is monument in Washington, D.C., honoring World War II American soldiers who gave their lives on Dutch soil. The names of Smith and others are listed on war memorials in Roberta and near the Macon Coliseum.
Chris Smith, Bob Lee’s youngest son, is a Macon attorney and an honorary consul to the kingdom of Denmark. On Memorial Day, he often takes his sons, Alex and Stefan, to visit his uncle’s grave at the cemetery in Roberta. They make sure all the flags are straight and place flowers on the grave.
He was not surprised at his father’s determination in finding the missing crewmen.
“My dad sees things through,’’ Chris said. “He had the information and the ability, so he acted on it. It was the right thing to do, not to let it wither. Americans don’t leave their people behind.’’
Chris accompanied his father to Sylacauga last June for the memorial service for Collins. It was a military funeral, with a 21-gun salute.
The empty tombstone with his name on it had been there for years. He was buried next to his mother, Mary, who never gave up hope he might return. She would wait on the porch. Every time she saw a man in a military uniform, she wondered if it might be her son.
The family asked Bob Lee to say a few words at the service. When it was over, he leaned in toward the flag-draped coffin.
“Well, Jimmie,’’ he said softly. “You’re finally home.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. He can be reached at email@example.com.