The Lost Airman-A Memoir
On February 6,1943, my cousin Henry Sherman, the most beautiful soldier I had ever seen, disappeared into thin air over a place called New Guinea. I had expected this news ever since he taught me to sing the song of the Army Air Corps:
We live in fame, go down in flame,
Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps.
Before this, when he wrote our family from flight school, I had already begun to worry. One letter, which my mother read to us, alarmed me in particular:
Flew like an angel yesterday. Things are getting tougher.
I’m really learning how to twist that plane around the skies. . . . I like flying upside down best of all.
It was clear to me, from the times my father had held me upside down, that Henry would become dizzy and be unable to steer his plane.
After his graduation from flight school, Henry came home on his last furlough. My grandmother told him she was worried about his going so far away, and began to cry a little. Henry took a silver dollar from his pocket and tossed it in the air. “My lucky silver dollar, Gram,” he said. “It always lands heads up. See, I scratched my name on it. I’ll be just fine.”
He let me touch the dollar, then lifted me high on his shoulder while my father took a picture of us. The sun, glinting off the gold pilot’s wings on the front of his hat, thrilled me and made me happy. Wherever Henry was, life was exciting. The brim of his hat was stiff, the points of his shirt collar were ruler-straight, and his sleeves had a sharp crease from shoulder to wrist. He gleamed with perfection, whereas my father, who did not get to fight in the war because of me, because he had a wife and a child, always dressed in baggy pants, his shirt pulled out at the waist. His curly hair was wild and unruly, and sometimes he forgot to shave. Because he had an antique shop and worked with old furniture and dusty statues, his fingernails were always grimy.
Sometimes I wished that Henry, who was exactly twenty years older than I (we shared the same birthday, March 15), could be my father. He knew what I needed. He promised to send me presents from wherever in the world he landed his plane, from every base, from every faraway city. “I will think of you wherever I go,” he told me, kissing my cheek hard with his beautiful lips. “I will send you dolls and fans and little bells and carved peacocks with great colorful tails.”
I was four, almost five, and I adored him. Our mothers were sisters, although his mother, Eva, was twelve years older than mine and was born from a different father. She was tall and very magnificent. She wore great white corsets with laces and hooks and had no hesitation pulling off her dress in front of me if she chose to, making me look at her flesh, the garters with which she held up her stockings, her shimmering large breasts. My own mother was thin and modest. She dressed with her face and half her body in the closet, letting me see only the curve of her bare back. Sometimes she even carried her nightgown into the bathroom to put it on.
A third sister, my Aunt Greta, born two years after my mother, had no husband, no children, and she lived with my mother, father, grandmother, and me in the house in Brooklyn because she had no choice and nowhere else to go.
Aunt Eva lived not in Brooklyn but the Bronx, not in a house with a backyard and a front garden but in a tall apartment building with a marble foyer and an elevator. Her husband, my Uncle Eddie, had been a prizefighter. Though he was short and very solid, he did not scare me, even with his broken nose. In addition to Henry, they had two other sons, Irving and Freddy, one older than Henry, one younger. All three were handsome and fun to be with; I was proud to be related to them.
The war, to a child in Brooklyn in the 1940’s, meant several specific things: you were not allowed to interrupt a news broadcast, especially if your father tilted his head toward the radio and held up his hand to stop you from speaking; you were encouraged to make balls out of silver foil from chewing-gum wrappers and discarded cigarette packs found in the street; and you were urged to give up any costume jewelry or beads that you had in your jewelry box. The tinfoil balls would in some way help our boys win the war, whereas the beads and rings could be traded for food to the wild men of New Guinea should our boys happen to crash-land in the mountains and need to barter with the natives. All children were urged to buy war stamps for 25 cents each, to be pasted into a little book. Eventually, when the book was filled up, a war bond could be purchased. This would also help win the war.
Winning the war was what we had to do in order for Henry to come home safe and be with us again. Fighting the war meant that we had to draw black curtains over our windows when the blackout alarm was sounded. Giving up new leather shoes, lamb chops, and sugar to make cakes would mean there was more for the boys to have. It was all quite simple. If we did those things, Hitler would be destroyed.
After Henry’s disappearance, my family waited for news, any kind of news except a telegram. The fact that Henry had disappeared was bad enough, but everyone in my family and in my house was certain he was alive, which was good. The sight of telegram boys on bicycles was dreaded by everyone throughout our neighborhood, for they had the power to deliver the worst news of all: that someone’s son had been killed and would never come home.
Mothers whose sons were killed in the war were given gold stars to paste in their window, just as I (who was in kindergarten) was awarded a gold star when I knew my numbers or colors or could tell the correct time on the clock in the classroom. My Aunt Eva did not get a gold star for two reasons: one was that Henry was not proven dead, only “missing in action”; and another (I assumed) was that she had no window facing the street on which to paste a gold star. Privately I wondered if she might want to move to a one-story house (preferably in Brooklyn, near us) to display her star if the telegram boy ever delivered the worst news of all.
Lost boys were not new to our family. I already had a lost uncle, my mother’s older brother Sam, who my grandmother felt certain was still alive. Now her daughter had a missing son, too. I imagined that some day I would probably also be required to have a missing son, something I did not look forward to although I recognized that it brought you a great deal of attention and visitors and phone calls and allowed you to go to your room to cry because you were having “a very hard time of it.” Everyone in my house did a great deal of crying.
My grandmother, from the time her son was lost, long before I was born, insisted on leaving the front porch lit every night because she expected Sam to come walking in the door. She consulted fortunetellers as to his whereabouts. She took part in séances. Others in the family just assumed he had drowned. He had gone fishing with friends on the eve of Yom Kippur—in a storm, no less—a very bad time to have an outing since (as my Aunt Greta explained to me) that was the night all Jews were required to begin 24 hours of fasting to atone for their sins. Sam should have been in shul, praying to God.
I could understand the lure of fishing. My father often took me, in a rowboat in Prospect Park or on a pier at Sheepshead Bay, but we never went at night. What would be the point? How then could we see the sunshine on the water, the silvery dance of a fish on the line, the desperate struggle of its flapping fins on the wooden floor of the boat or pier, the heaving of its gills as it gasped for air, its final scaly stillness after it gave up the fight at last?
My mother told me that after her brother disappeared on that stormy Yom Kippur night, she—though only seventeen—had been summoned many times to the morgue to look at the faces of drowned men in case one of them might be Sam. My grandmother could not be asked to do it, nor could Aunt Greta. When I begged my mother to describe what the dead men looked like, she refused. But she assured me that even though the $1,000 insurance policy would have paid off the mortgage on the house if one of the dead men turned out to be Sam, she was glad that none ever did.
Between my grandmother still thinking Sam would come marching in the door, and my Aunt Eva certain Henry would hike out of the mountains in New Guinea and phone her from somewhere, I felt thankful my father came from a family of no missing sons and had no expectations that ghosts would appear at the door. Now and then he threatened to join up and fight in the war because he felt useless not being “over there”—but my mother and I begged him to remember how much we needed him over here.
In the weeks following Henry’s disappearance, my Aunt Eva came over many Friday nights with her boys Freddy and Irving—really they were men—to share my grandmother’s boiled chicken and her kreplach soup. (Uncle Eddie still played poker with his cronies on Friday nights, though Aunt Eva said he had gone to pieces since Henry was missing and would never be the same.) After dinner, as soon as we all got to talking, Aunt Eva would take from her purse the letter written by Henry’s commanding officer and read it to us once again to prove there was still hope:
Dear Mrs. Sherman:
How it pains me to write you this, the saddest duty of my life. Your son was a fine young man, a good friend of mine. I knew of his devotion to you. . . . All I can do now is tell you what we know happened on the 6th day of February, 1943. On that day we took a flight of our ships to Uau, New Guinea. Six in all. Over the Uau airport we were attacked by about forty Zeros and some Bombers. Henry was flying a ship called “Early Delivery” with Lt. R. H. Schwensen, Cpl. Erickson, Private Faun, and Private Piekutowski. The Zeros came in fast and four were diving at Henry’s ship. He went near the [air] port in a turn and from then on—no one is sure. It’s not anything to help your feelings, but the Japs lost 26 in this fight to (I am sorry to say) our one. In this land of thousands of miles of jungles, mountains, and God knows what, anything is possible. But all we can do is look and try to find his ship. . . . As long as we are in New Guinea—we’ll be looking.
These letters are harder to write than the war—Henry was my friend and Buddy—and if there is any way to find him, we will do it. You can rest assured in that.
Robert. L. Ward,
Captain, 33rd Troop Carrier Squadron
Through the War Department, Aunt Eva had managed to get in touch with the Schwensens, the parents of Henry’s co-pilot, who lived in Wichita, Kansas, and now the two mothers began to correspond. Aunt Eva read us Mrs. Schwensen’s letters, too:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Sherman:
I know it will help you out to know there is [another mother] who had a son on Robert’s plane besides us—her husband is a lieutenant in New Guinea. He talked to a native down there and the native said he knew where Robert’s plane was and so they have sent a group of natives to map out a way for the investigators to get in, as the area is very remote and the jungle there is very dense. Her husband said at the time of their flight, they were carrying food as cargo, so if the boys weren’t hurt, they’d be able to exist quite a while on the food which was aboard. He also said that they don’t think the boys are prisoners of the Japanese because of the remoteness of the area where the plane went down. I am glad you have so much faith and courage, because I really think that in itself will help the boys wherever they are. This gives all of us added hope that the boys will ultimately be reached by this rescue group and trust by now that we will hear something definite and that they are all well. Should we hear further shortly we will give you the information providing you do not hear before we do.
With best wishes we are,
“So anything is still possible,” said my Aunt Greta.
“Anything is possible,” agreed my mother. “And if there is any way to find him, they will.”
“I know he’ll come back,” I added, though I was not sure at all.
It was on this same night that my cousin Freddy announced to Aunt Eva that he had gone downtown to enlist: “I’m going to train as a navigator. I told them I want to be sent to the Pacific. I’m going to get the bastards that got my brother.”
“Oh please!” Aunt Eva cried. “Don’t do that to me.”
By August 1943, when Freddy had been shipped out to the European theater with the 82nd Airborne, my Aunt Eva got another letter:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Sherman:
On July 5, Jimmie Campbell, who is now a captain, and who had been in the South Pacific area for nearly fifteen months, returned home from New Guinea. He was the leader of the flight on February 6th when Robert’s and Henry’s transport was apparently lost. He came to our home and talked to us a long time. He does paint a very dark picture for us as to the boys’ safety. Of course, he was also giving us the Government’s viewpoint as to their being lost and, as you already know, the Government does not hold much hope for the boys’ safety. Nevertheless, they also do not have sufficient proof. The boys could still be safe because the plane has not been found. He explained all matters in detail as to how it happened that fateful day. He said they all really expected to be shot down when the enemy appeared on the scene that day. Anti-aircraft fire from our ground forces and fighter planes shot down 28 zeros out of about 38 that day; but two Zeros broke through somehow and pounced on our boys’ plane and apparently they were the victims.
We want to quote to you from a letter from our eldest son, who is training in this country as a pilot, as follows: “I have thought over and over again many times the conversation Robert and I had in San Antonio, when he said that he knew just what to do in case he was face to face with a situation . . . he said he would use his demolition equipment to destroy his plane after everybody had taken to the parachutes. This is the reason they haven’t found his plane. It had secret radar equipment which he swore to destroy before crashing. He had rehearsed this action over so many times in his mind that it was just part of him. I just know he is alive somewhere.”
So you see we have not given up hope as yet and we do not want you to either. Still trusting and hoping for the safe return of all our boys missing.
With best wishes we are,
Bess and Justus Schwensen
Freddy sent me an embroidered silk blouse from Belgium with a matching skirt whose bodice laced up high at the waist, and a china doll I named Alice, for whom my Aunt Greta made a head of hair out of black wool. I could braid this hair, though it was not as good as the blonde hair on the heads of certain dolls my friends had, the sort of doll that cost too much for my parents to buy.
Aunt Greta joined the Red Cross and spent days at the synagogue, making bandages out of gauze and knitting socks for the boys overseas. I often went with her, sitting at long tables with the other women. If sheets of loose tinfoil had been brought in, I was given the job of adding them to the growing silver ball whose purpose in the war effort I did not exactly understand, though a silver ball as big as a basketball was an impressive thing to see. My mother had begun to save the grease from cooked bacon in a tin can, although as Jews we were not supposed to eat bacon. My father hated the smell of it; my mother said the grease oiled the tanks and therefore she intended to cook it every day. It was her contribution to winning the war.
My cousin Freddy’s plane was shot at over France. He got an arm and a leg full of shrapnel, and had to be shipped home to a hospital. My Aunt Eva cried tears of joy, and seemed oddly happy that her son’s leg was infected and full of holes. When they cut out the 77 little pieces of metal, she put them in a velvet case in her jewelry box, where she also kept Henry’s medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. Whenever we went to visit her in the Bronx she let me hold the medals, which were cold, brown, and hard and did not seem like much of a present if you were never going to come home again.
The war was lasting so long it was making everyone crazy. Every time we went shopping and passed the house of Mrs. Carp on East Fourth, we stopped to contemplate the four gold stars in her front window. Aunt Greta always said to my mother, “My God, my God, how does she keep living?” And then we had to do the ordinary things, walk on to the bakery and the butcher and the drugstore.
Suddenly though, when no one expected it, the war ended. People rushed into the street, screaming and tossing confetti in the air. Strangers lifted me into the air and kissed me. I never saw so much love in my life. I felt proud that all this happiness had something to do with my work on the silver-foil balls.
In November 1945, a neighbor told my Aunt Greta about an article in the New York Daily News. Titled “Lindy Over Shangri-La,” it reported that Charles Lindbergh had discovered some American planes that had been forced to make emergency landings and then became stranded on a mountaintop in New Guinea. Aunt Greta wrote at once, first to the paper and then to Lindbergh—the address she was given for him was in care of the Ford Motor Company, Detroit, Michigan. She begged him to reveal, if only he could, that by some great good fortune her nephew was a survivor of one of those forced landings.
She watched out the window for the mailman every day, praying at the same time that the telegram boy would never stop anywhere on our block. She told me that Lindbergh, a brave man and famous flier, had also lost a son a long time ago, a baby boy who was stolen from his crib by a murderer. She knew that if the letter got to him, he would answer it. She knew he would understand what our family’s pain was like.
When the letter came two weeks later, my aunt opened it as if she were unwrapping a precious jewel. She read us every word:
The Tompkins House
Long Lots Road
December 4, 1945
Miss Greta Sorblum
405 Avenue “O”
New York, New York
Dear Miss Sorblum:
I am extremely sorry to have to tell you in reply to your letter, that the newspaper report about my seeing an isolated place in New Guinea, cut off from communications, where several planes had made forced landings is untrue as are so many similar stories printed these days.
I want you to know that you have my deepest sympathy in your great concern for your nephew who has been reported missing. I wish I had information which might be of value to you.
Forty years later, when I was living in California with children of my own, I had occasion to travel to Miami Beach. Aunt Eva was living then in one room of a decrepit 1920’s retirement hotel on Collins Avenue, a block from the beach. She had lost the voluptuous flesh that had made her seem bigger than life when I was a little girl, and now appeared to me to have slowly vanished over the years.
She was waiting on the hotel porch. The minute we got to her room, she pressed upon me everything she could think of that was hers to give: an old slice of French toast wrapped in tinfoil that she had been planning to reheat in the toaster, a little china lamb that sat on top of her television, a nylon sweater beaded with pearls that she thought would look good on me at a formal dinner I was to attend that evening. She insisted I eat a big round cookie, of the kind we kids used to call black-and-whites, that she had been saving in her tiny refrigerator.
Both her husband and her eldest son Irving were long dead. My grandmother and my father were also dead. Her son Freddy, a successful investment broker, lived 2,000 miles away. When we began to talk of Henry, she told me that his best buddy had married Henry’s girlfriend; together they had had three children. “Everyone is gone. Uncle Eddie. Irving. Sam. My mother and my father. It’s all like a dream.”
“I always thought it so strange that Sam and Henry were both lost,” I said. “Two boys in one family.”
“Sam wasn’t lost. He was killed.”
“He was killed? I thought he drowned in a fishing accident.”
“No. Sam and his friends weren’t going fishing that night. They were running rum up and down the coast. They were making a lot of money at it. Sam always had an eye for the quick buck. There was a rival boat that was stealing their business. They fired on each other. The coast guard got involved, who knows. Both boats were shot down. They both sank. No one survived.”
“Grandma always thought he would still come home.”
“We all think what we have to think,” Aunt Eva said.
Before I left, my aunt and I looked through some old photos and came upon the one of Henry holding me on his shoulder at his last furlough: I am four, going on five, wearing a sweater and overalls and a knit hat with a pompom on it. My small hand is wrapped around the back of Henry’s neck, and he—in his starched uniform, his Air Corps hat with his pilot’s wings above the brim—shines resplendent.
Aunt Eva said, “I want you to have Henry’s things—his letters from flight school, the picture album he sent me that shows him posing with all his airplanes and his buddies, the letter from his commander after he was lost, the letters from the Schwensens. Take good care of them. Tell your children so they know what happened.”
In 1989, a little more than a year after my Aunt Eva died at the age of ninety-two, my husband and I were having coffee and browsing through the Los Angeles Times when a back-page article caught my eye:
Airman Buried 46 Years
After Death In Jungle
Leavenworth, Kansas—Nearly half a century ago, a young Army airman left his wife and family in Wichita to fight in World War II over the Pacific Ocean. On Friday, 1st Lt. Robert Schwensen was finally laid to rest here, a year after his remains were discovered by Australian gold prospectors atop a mountain in a dense jungle of New Guinea. Schwensen and four other men aboard a C-47 had been listed as missing in action since their aircraft was shot down by Japanese fighter planes in February 1943. Schwensen was buried Friday under overcast skies with an honor guard and a 21-gun salute at Ft. Leavenworth’s National Cemetery. “At last he’s going to finally be home where he belongs,” said June Rockhill, the woman Robert Schwensen left behind in the fall of 1942. She was 18 at the time and had been married just three months. . . . Air Force officials in Washington said it is rare to find the remains of missing servicemen so long after World War II.
“Robert Schwensen!” I cried out. “Oh my God! I’ve got to call my cousin Freddy.”
Freddy immediately got in touch with the Defense Department and learned that Henry’s skeletal remains had also been found, in the pilot’s seat on the left side of the transport plane’s cockpit. His dog-tags were still around his bones, with his belt, his knife, his eyeglass frames, and his lucky silver dollar lying nearby. In addition to Robert Schwensen, whose body was on the right side of the cockpit, the bones of the other three airmen were intermingled in the back compartment of the plane. The government had been unable to locate any of the missing boys’ families, and it was only when news of the plane’s discovery appeared in a newspaper that a Schwensen relative living in California called for more information. Finally the family had been able to claim the body of their boy.
Freddy called me back the next day—hardly able to suppress the tears in his voice—to report that Henry would now be buried, with full military honors, in Arlington National Cemetery. The government was sending him Henry’s lucky silver dollar and the few other personal effects that had survived the ravages of the years. Freddy said he was glad his mother had not lived to hear the news. “To know that they found my brother would have killed her.”
After much searching through the phone book and many fruitless calls, I managed to find the address of E.W “Swede” Schwensen, Robert’s brother, and sent him the news that we, too, had discovered our boy’s remains. He wrote me back at once:
We just returned this week from Ft. Leavenworth National Cemetery where Lt. Robert H. Schwensen was buried six plots from his older brother, Capt. Justus Schwensen, a B-24 pilot killed over Hamburg, Germany. Our family also lost a third brother, Lt. Richard Schwensen (Infantry) killed at Remagen Bridge in Germany and is buried in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg. Mother and Dad are deceased, but my younger brother and myself attended Robert’s funeral. . . . It’s nice to have all this behind us now so that we can go on with our lives.
A three-star family, I thought to myself. How did they bear it?
I did not go to Henry’s funeral, but one day when my grown daughters were in the garage looking through some of their old childhood toys, they unearthed a box of gold paper stars. I took one of them and pressed it in the corner of my bedroom window—my small salute to Henry, the most beautiful soldier I had ever known.