By 2nd Lt. Kathleen Polesnak , 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
/ Published February 24, 2009
HENRI-CHAPELLE, Belgium --
A line in the Airman's creed states "I will never leave an Airman behind."
For Tech. Sgt. Leonard J. Ray, a member of the Maryland National Guard killed during World War II, that promise was fulfilled, albeit 60-plus years after his B-24 bomber went down.
An international crowd gathered at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery and Memorial in Belgium Feb. 20 to honor the Ray and his eight fellow crew members, all missing in action, after their remains were recovered in a field southwest of Berlin in 2002. At the ceremony, nine rosettes - small flower-shaped pendants - were placed next to each crew member's engraved name to signify they are no longer missing.
"When we actually find a rosette by the names of the missing, it's closure - for these parents, there's not a grave, so that's why the name on the wall is so important," said U.S. Army Retired Brig. Gen. Steven R. Hawkins, director of the European region for the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Relishing a rarity
Of the three and a half years Gen. Hawkins has spent working as the director for American cemeteries and battle grounds in Europe, he has only seen three other rosettes placed next to MIA servicemembers' names. Finding the remains of missing military members, especially from World Wars I and II, is rare.
And the story of how Ray and the other Airmen were found is even rarer.
Enrico Schwartz, a German native who works for an IBM company, has been part of the Allied Aircrew Research Team since 1998. During the past decade, he's helped recover the remains of American servicemembers, including the nine being memorialized.
"The main part for me is giving closure," Mr. Schwartz said. "There's no closure when there are still open wounds."
It took four years of researching and interviewing witnesses to find the nine men's remains.
"It started as a favor and when I learned how much impact this has, I carried on," Mr. Schwartz said. "This, to me, I eliminated the war issue and the historical issue and saw it as the current case - there are sisters, brothers, mothers out there still - this is what drives me."
From the years of personal time and expenses Mr. Schwartz spent, to the number of Belgians, Germans and other non-Americans present, it was clear these nine American Airmen had an impact beyond their graves.
"I'm glad I'm here today to pay respects to those who secured our freedom," said Rick Vissers, a Belgian native who works on infrastructure at the NATO Programming Centre. "Two words - thank you."
Mr. Vissers spoke of the long-time friendship between Belgians and Americans that stems from their support for one another during the war.
"My town was a rest area in World War II -- Americans needed ammunition and fuel and were invited by local the people to get inside," he said. "They became so close that after 60 years, they still know each other."
Ralf Klodt, a German photo journalist at the ceremony, echoed Mr. Visser's gratitude toward American troops, as the 78th infantry division liberated his hometown, Königswinter, during World War II. Mr. Klodt said regardless of which side of the war people were on, it's important to remember the positive stories that still thrive today.
"It's about the human aspect of war - what have they experienced," he said. "It's the German side, the Allied side, the civilian side. It's important to keep it alive and to tell the right stories."
Fog of war
A thick fog and steady rain didn't deter the patriotic group of onlookers at the ceremony. A row of Belgian children waved small American flags as a group of older Belgian men clutched their full-sized Belgian flags. Also present were local mayors, and military representatives from Greece, Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey and Slovakia.
Airmen from NATO Headquarters in Brussels, NPC, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, Belgium; the U.S. Embassy; Aviano Air Base, Italy; Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany; and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, stood, sharp and ready in their blue service dress uniforms.
Staff Sgt. Ralph Oliver, NPC material manager, stood at parade rest next to a pedestal holding the rosettes during the entire ceremony.
"For me, it was an honor - this is one of the things I enjoy doing in the military," Sergeant Oliver said. "I'm glad and grateful to be honoring our fallen comrades. It was cold, but I think it was well worth it."
Except for the damp, cold faces at the end, the ceremony carried on as though the sun were shining the entire time. The SHAPE International Band played ruffles and flourishes and other patriotic music, and the Spangdahlem Honor Guard fired a salute to the fallen Airmen.
Capt. Apphia Fairhurst, deputy project leader for Network-interoperable Realtime Information Services and NPC Integrated Solaris Platform, read some of the Airmens' biographies during the ceremony, and said the event was a wake-up call for young military members.
"The biggest thing had been all of us are about 21 to 28 and that was the age of them," she said. "A lot of us took it a lot more seriously once we found out the ages of the people involved."
For each of the nine fallen Airmen, someone from their home state placed a rosette next to their names. Chief Master Sgt. Kenneth Williams, U.S. Air Force senior enlisted leaser for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, placed a rosette next to Ray's name.
Tech. Sgt. Tommy Van, NPC computer programmer, was the noncommissioned officer in charge of the event, and had his hands in the process from start (November 2008) to finish.
"The most rewarding thing for me has been getting in contact with the families and learning the history," he said. "It gives you a sense that these are real people - this really puts a name on a face with a personal impact."
The ceremony lasted 45 minutes, but the closure for the families will last lifetimes.
And hopefully, said some Air Force senior leaders, so will the sentiment of never leaving Airmen behind.
"I think it's an attribute that should stick with all our Airmen - no matter when, there's always people looking for those who are lost," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas B. Wright, SHAPE deputy chief of staff of operations. General Wright was the keynote speaker at the ceremony, and during his speech, he referenced the Airman's creed and the significance it should hold for all Airmen, past and present.
The responsibility given to the members of the McMurray Crew was astounding by today's standards, said Lt. Col. Cindi Deiana, SHAPE special advisor for international affairs, as they were all under the age of 30 and the highest ranking officers were first lieutenants.
"I think that the crew is an example of so many of the Army Air Corps that took an extraordinary request and made it common place," Colonel Deiana said. "It's amazing what we asked of Airmen in World War II - it was typical. We asked things of Airmen that are inconceivable today."