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The Stearns Family Looks for Answers

Just five days before a very sad Christmas without their son, Bobby Stearns’ mother wrote to George Edwin Farrar’s mother.  Their son was the bombardier aboard Lead Banana who was killed in the September 28, 1944 mid-air collision with Lazy Daisy.  They hoped Farrar, the only survivor aboard Lead Banana, could furnish some details of the loss of their son that the Army Air Forces had apparently not provided them.

December 20, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

My dear Mrs. Farrar:

Last evening we had a letter from the Quarter Master General stating that Bobby is buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery at Margraten, Holland in Plot “L” Row 12, Grave 299 – this is the same location as Lt. Henson’s grave – his is 297. While we hoped for a far different ending to this final chapter, it’s a relief to know he had a decent burial by his own people.

We hope your son is recovered from his ordeal in the prison camp. I know he wants to forget it all as quickly as he can but there are just a few questions I’d like to ask and maybe some time when he feels like it he could write. 1 – Just how did the accident happen? We’ve heard several different versions but would like to know which is true. 2 – Were any of the boys killed by the collision or did they all get out? 3 – Did they go down over the city or country? 4 – Anything else that would help us have it straight in our minds.

Like all the rest of the country we are having a severe winter which began in early November. We have been feeding the cattle since then so this will be a long winter for us. Had 16 in. of snow at the deepest and 17° below the coldest. Today’s paper says it has even reached as far south as Georgia.

Our son Jim is discharged now and he and his wife June are home with us now. We are so glad to have them home.

I hope your family is all together and that you are all well. That’s the best thing I can think of to wish you for the new year.

With best wishes,

Sincerely,
Mrs. Carey Stearns

As for answers, I don’t know if the Army Air Forces divulged any of the details during my dad’s lifetime.  He died in 1982.  The reports are no longer confidential and reflect that:

  1. Lazy Daisy collided with Lead Banana due to confusing and quick maneuvering to avoid colliding with another group head on.  There was no flak and no ground fire that hit either fort.
  2. None of the boys on Lead Banana except my dad made it out of the aircraft before it crashed.  They all died either from the collision itself or the ensuing fire and crash.
  3. I don’t know the exact location of where each fort went down, but I do know that the collision was said to happen near Magdeburg, Germany at 52°06′N 11°39′E.  Both planes crashed approximately 20 miles northwest of this location.  Lazy Daisy crashed near Erxleben and Lead Banana crashed approximately one and one-quarter miles north of Ostingersleben.  Today, Google Earth shows this to be mostly farm land, or countryside, rather than a large city.  (Note:  Google maps do not show Erxleben in the correct location.  If you want to locate Erxleben on the map, search on Ostingersleben and you will see Erxleben nearby, about 5km to the northeast).

Robert Sumner Stearns has since been reburied at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno (San Mateo County), California, Section B, plot 302.  He also has a memorial marker at the Juniper Haven Cemetery in Prineville (Crook County), Oregon.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

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A Shred of Hope

George Edwin Farrar’s mother must have recently written to the families of all of the boys who were on the Lead Banana on September 28, 1944.  They appreciated her sharing her news of a letter from her son.  He had written that he had been liberated and would be coming home in the near future.  Raleigh Mae Farrar’s backyard now boasted a large vegetable garden and was populated by forty-two chickens.  Her plan was in place to nourish her son back to health when he arrived home from the war.

She had recently received letters from the Buslees, the Albrechts, and the Pelusos.  The next letter to arrive was from the Stearns, parents of Lead Banana bombardier Robert Sumner Stearns.

June 10, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

My dear Mrs. Farrar,

How happy we are over the wonderful news you’ve had from your son, George. I hope he will soon be home with you, safe and sound. What a terrible experience he must have had to be in prison all these months. A cousin of ours was captured in the break-through in January and put to work on a Railroad crew on 2 slices of black bread and 1 qt. of soup a day. He lost 65# in those few months, but is now home and going to be alright. Luckily he was not injured. I surely hope George fared well and was not mistreated.

We’ve appreciated all the good letters you’ve written us so much as realize you’re busy and have been so worried over your boys. I’m so glad the son who was in the So. Pacific is home with you now – you really have been very lucky to have both boys home after all they’ve been through. I hope your son who was in India is well and that you hear from him often.

We have had no word from anyone of the crew’s families except you so I presume they have heard nothing. There are still a few prisoners yet to be liberated from Russian held territory, I read in this week’s paper, so maybe some of us will hear something yet, as long as there is a shred of hope, or chance that they are somewhere alive we will keep looking for news.

Our weather has been very rainy and cold the past month so everything is green and pretty. The gardens are slow, tho – in fact some of ours isn’t planted yet, the ground is so wet. Today was nice and sunny so perhaps we are going to have some warm weather.

How nice to have all those fryers ready for George’s home coming. I can imagine you enjoying cooking them for him almost as much as he will enjoy eating them. Bobby’s favorite meal was beefsteak, mashed potatoes, gravy, hot biscuits and a green vegetable salad, which he could cook very well himself, all except the biscuits. I read where the boys in the prison camps planned what they were going to eat and fishing trips they were going to take when they got home. Took their minds off their surroundings, they said. We are able to get meat whenever we have the points for it here, but we are in cattle country. May make some difference. Can’t have much choice at times, tho, but no one goes without.

We are anxiously waiting to hear from you again as to what really happened the day of the accident, and just where it was. We have heard two different versions, but realize how hard it was for so many accidents to be kept straight. So we will watch the mail and be forever grateful to you for sending all the good letters to us.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Stearns

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

Encouraged

The families of the other boys on Lead Banana on September 28, 1944 must have all recently received a letter from George Edwin Farrar’s mother which prompted many of them to write back in return.  Raleigh Mae Farrar had received a letter from her son on March 23, 1945.  The letter had been dated November 9, 1944 and postmarked January 17, 1945.  The letter had been delayed more than four months.  Farrar was no longer in Stalag Luft IV, but had instead been marching across Germany since February 6.  In November he wrote:

Dearest Mother:

In a few more months I should be hearing from you and it will sure be nice.  I think this is the longest I have ever gone without hearing from you.  I hope you and Dad, and the rest of the family are getting along fine.  As for myself, I am feeling fine, but miss that good cooking of yours.  I’ll really keep you busy when I get home.  I guess I have more luck than anyone to still be here, and not a thing wrong with me.  Your prayers came in good.  I still can’t believe I am alive.  They said I was the only one out of my ship that is alive.  Write often.  Love, George

Raleigh Mae must have conveyed to the other families the news that her son had written that the Germans told him he was the only survivor on his flying fortress.

The next to write was Robert Sumner (Bobby) Stearns’ mother.  Stearns was the bombardier on Lead Banana when it was involved in the mid-air collision with Lazy Daisy.  The Stearns had received a telegram, a telegram they chose not to believe, on December 23, 1944, telling them that their son had been killed in the collision.

April 8, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

Dear Mrs. Farrar,

We were so glad to hear from you and to know you had heard from George again and that he was well. It is so encouraging to us that he got down unharmed. Surely some of the others did, too, in spite of what the Germans say. We simply won’t believe them for awhile yet, as it isn’t reasonable where so many parachutes were seen to open that none would get down safe.

It wouldn’t be surprising if George didn’t get home one of these days if he was in the camp when it was liberated. Our cousin was captured in the break-through in Dec. and late in Jan. his folks were notified. From then on no official word, but last week a letter from him saying he might be home as soon as the letter. We can well imagine their happiness at such news – their only boy, too.

If George has been as fortunate he may do the same as all prisoners are sent home as soon as possible, I understand. We can hardly wait as he may be able to tell some thing – the condition of the plane after the collision for one thing. It seemed to me that he seemed surprised at what the Germans said about the others but of course there is so little of that kind of news they are allowed to write.

We are having such a cold spell of weather. I’m sitting by the fire writing on my lap and not doing a very neat job. It has been snowing much of the day, melting as it fell.

Is your youngest son still in the hospital? What a terrible siege he has had – I hope he is improving and will soon be home. It really begins to look like the end of the war is really approaching and we are fairly holding our breath, hoping it is so. Please write any other news you may have.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Stearns

The Farrar’s son, Bob, had been injured in a kamikaze attack on the Intrepid the prior November.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

High Anxiety

On March 17, 1945, the mother of Robert Sumner Stearns, bombardier for the Buslee crew on September 28, 1944, wrote again to the mother of George Edwin Farrar, waist gunner on the same crew.  Their boys had been involved in a mid-air collision between Lazy Daisy and Lead Banana coming off the target at Madgeburg, Germany.  Farrar had been reported captured and a prisoner of war while Stearns had been reported killed.

March 17, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

Dear Mrs. Farrar:

Every day we say “surely it’s time for Mrs. Farrar to have had another letter from her son” so just have to find out. I’m sure the mail is very slow from Germany and possibly there hasn’t been time for another letter, but our anxiety is very great, for word from over there. Every day we read of some boy who is alright whose folks have had no word officially, so surely the ones who have been reported by the Govt (Ger) would be allowed to write regularily.

Have you heard that Lt. Buslee, Sgt. Bryant and Sgt. Andersen have been reported killed, also on Sept. 28th? The report was a month later than ours. We can hardly wait for this awful war to end so that we will know if these reports are true or not.

I hope your son who was in the So. Pacific is well and safe.

Our oldest son is now in Denver training to be a Turret Mechanic and Gunner on a B-29. His wife is there, too, which is a great comfort to both of them. It’s going to be hard for young people to live normal lives afterward if the war lasts much longer.

I’ve written twice to the Exchange Studio in Savannah to get some extra prints of the pictures Bobby had taken before he went across. When they come I’d like to exchange with you for a picture of your son so can have a crew group for our scrapbook. If they ever had a picture of their new crew I never heard of it and we’d so much like to have pictures of all the boys.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Stearns

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

We Can’t Give Up

The Stearns, parents of Lead Banana bombardier Robert Sumner (Bobby) Stearns, had been notified by the War Department on December 23, 1944, that their son had been killed in action on September 28.  They chose not to believe the news and held out hope that their son would be coming home one day.  On January 24, 1945, Mrs. Stearns wrote to Mrs. Farrar.

January 24, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

Dear Mrs. Farrar:

How happy we all were to get your letter yesterday saying you had heard direct from your son. I can imagine nothing ever looked any more wonderful than his own writing after all the Government reports. That let you know it was really true that he was alive and well treated.  How happy we would be to get this same word – nothing could be more wonderful to us but we’ve had no further word about Bobby, and I don’t believe any of the others have, either.

We had a letter from Mrs. Peluso today and they had been told practically the same story about the accident by some friend of theirs. Coming from so many different ones that it was a collision and not anti-aircraft that put their plane down surely some more of them got down unhurt.

The way the war is going surely it can’t be too long until we will all know more than we do now. I hope your son is soon home safe and well and bringing good news of the others. We just can’t give up but that our Bobby is safe somewhere even tho we have nothing more than our faith to go on.

Our oldest son was given the emergency furlough he should have had at Xmas time and got home Tuesday. He is at the Sheppard Field, Texas being classified for some Air Force work besides piloting after having been a flight instructor for a year for the Army.

I am glad your son is home from the So. Pacific – how nice for all of you just at this time. So many boys from our home town are in the Navy and some have been very close to serious hurt. One boy had his shirt blown from his back and several killed beside him. One of my son’s schoolmates is in India with the Airborne Engineers. I hope you hear from your son there often. Kenneth’s folks have heard from him quite regularily.

Thank you so very much for your very kind letter. We are so interested in hearing everything you hear from your son. When you write tell him “Bob’s mother sends him her best wishes.”

Sincerely,
Mrs. Stearns

Notes:

  • Mrs. Peluso’s son, Sebastiano, was also on the Lead Banana on September 28, 1944.  Word was getting around that the War Department had not told the next-of-kin the truth about their sons’ plane.  If they couldn’t believe the War Department’s version of the crash, should they believe the deparment’s news about their son’s death?
  • The son home from the South Pacific was Robert Burnham (Bob) Farrar, who had been injured in a kamikaze attack on the USS Intrepid.
  • The son in India was Carroll Johnson Farrar, Jr.  Farrar family stories indicate he served in Asia, but I don’t have record of exactly where.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

Another Letter from the Stearns

On January 10, 1945, Robert (Bob) Stearns’s mother wrote her second letter to George Edwin (Ed) Farrar’s mother.  She had some news from a friend of Bob’s, the pilot of the crew Bob usually flew with.  Bob’s friend was Lt. Larkin C. Durdin.  Durdin had completed his thirty-five missions on October 6, 1944 and had returned to the states.  While he was at Grafton Underwood, he wasn’t allowed to share the information he knew with Bob’s parents, but now that he was out of the service and back at home, he felt compelled to tell them what he knew.  Betty Stearns passed this information along to Raleigh Mae Farrar and probably to other parents of the boys on Lead Banana on September 28, 1944.

January 10, 1945
Lapine, Oregon

Dear Mrs. Farrar:

Thank you for your very kind letter and the clipping about Lt. Henson.  What a fine looking young man he is.  I only hope the report is not true which we will know in time.

In our first letter to you we mentioned a friend of our son’s who had written us that he “felt they were safe.”  He is Capt. Durdin and at home at Horn Lake, Miss. at present, and as his letter received yesterday is of the greatest interest to all of us I’ll quote the part about what happened to our boys plane.

“I couldn’t tell you about what happened while I was over-seas but I’ll tell you now from the first.  I had started flying lead but Bob wasn’t checked out as lead so he went to school, had finished and was flying deputy lead.  You fly deputy a few times then start leading.

Henson was Navigator on the crew Bob was flying with.  His plane was cut in half over the target by another plane that was hit.  Both planes went down.  The fighter command reported that nine chutes came from the plane Bob was in.

I wasn’t on that mission because I had flown several straight and was grounded that day.  I heard that one member of the crew was P. W.  I don’t know who it was.  All this was my reason and hopes he was safe.”

These are his words copied from his letter as so often in repeating things the true meaning is lost.  It is your son who he refers to as P. W.  How wonderful that he is alive even tho a prisoner.  A year ago that would have been terrible news to me but what I wouldn’t give to hear Bobby was with him.

I hope you hear from him soon.  Of course he can tell you very little but just to see his writing again will mean everything.  From Capt. Durdin’s letter we feel some of the others will be heard from in time and we aren’t giving up hopes but that our Bobby will be among them.

While we are waiting for that to happen we must show some of the same courage our boys did in taking the War right to Hitler’s doorstep.  As I have never been too air-minded, that, to me, took the greatest bravery.

If you hear anything from your son please let us know.

Did Mrs. Henson write you?  Her report is practically the same as Lt. Durdin’s.

Very Sincerely,
Mrs. Carey Stearns

I’m not sure if Mrs. Stearns was referring to William A. Henson’s wife or mother as Mrs. Henson.  As the Hensons lived in the Atlanta area near the Farrars, they must have exchanged phone calls rather than letters, so I do not have a record of what Mrs. Henson wrote or who her source of information might have been.

This is the first time the families were told that the plane went down due to a mid-air collision rather than being hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire.

The report that nine parachutes were spotted is not backed up by any official reports.  Both Missing Air Crew Reports, MACR9366 and MACR9753, report that “no chutes were seen to emerge.”

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014

Our Bomber Crew

The parents of Buslee crew bombardier, Robert Sumner Stearns, wrote to George Edwin Farrar’s mother, Raleigh Mae Farrar, on January 1, 1945.  The Stearns sent the same information to all of the families of the Buslee crew included on the Next-of-Kin list they had just received.  The Stearns had learned on December 23, 1944 that their son had been killed on September 28.

Had other families also learned on December 23, 1944 that their sons had been killed that day?  The September 30, 1944 Telegram Form that became a part of MACR (Missing Air Crew Report) 9753 identified four men that had been killed in the mid-air collision of Lead Banana and Lazy Daisy on September 28, 1944.  It would make sense that all four families were notified on the same date.  Eight men had been reported dead, but only these four were identified:

  • William A. Henson II, navigator on Lead Banana
  • Robert S. Stearns, bombardier on Lead Banana
  • Gordon Hetu, ball turret gunner on Lazy Daisy
  • Robert D. Crumpton, engineer/top turret gunner on Lazy Daisy

I believe William Henson’s next-of-kin had been notified at the same time as the Stearns, which indicates that Hetu and Crumpton’s relatives also received the bad news around December 23.  All had been buried on September 30 at the Ostingersleben Cemetery near the crash site.

January 1, 1945
LaPine, Oregon

Dear Mrs. Farrar:

In today’s mail we received a letter from the War Department giving the names of the crew members of the bomber in which our son lost his life on September 28.  We are writing this letter to each of you who were listed as next of kin to give you all of the information we have received to date about our son.  Will you compare this information with what you have received and if there is anything you have which would add to the very meager reports which we have so far received we would greatly appreciated it if you would send it to us.  We hope to keep in close touch with all of you until every possible bit of information that would, in any way, help answer the many questions as to the fate of “Our Bomber Crew” which are in our minds today.  We all, definitely, have a lot in common; you may rest assured that Mrs. Stearns and I will forward any information we may receive that we think will be of interest to any of you.

Following is the information we have received to date:  The first word, of course, was the telegram stating that our son was listed as missing in action over Germany on Sept. 28th.

Following this wire was the letter from Headquarters of the Army Air Forces, Washington, which stated:  “Further information has been received indicating that Lieut. Stearns was a crew member of a B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber which departed from England on a combat mission to Magdeburg, Germany, on Sept. 28th.  The report indicates that during this mission at 12:10 P.M., in the vicinity of the target your sons bomber sustained damage from enemy anti-aircraft fire.  Shortly afterwards the disabled craft was observed to fall to earth, and, inasmuch as the crew members of the accompanying planes were unable to obtain any further details regarding its loss, the above facts constitute all the information presently available.”

Our next word was a short note from a close friend of our son, who was a pilot on another bomber, which stated:  although I wasn’t on the same mission I have talked with others who were on the same mission with Bob and we have reasons to believe he is safe.”  None of the reasons were stated but naturally this short note boosted our morale to the skies.

We then, on Dec. 23rd., received the telegram which stated:  “The German Government reporting through the International Red Cross states that your son, 1st. Lieut. Robert S. Stearns, previously reported as missing in action was killed on Sept. 28th.  Letter follows.”

This letter was the one giving the names of the crew members and the next of kin.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

If any of you have not received a wire similar to the one we got on Dec. 23rd, you should be encouraged for it could mean that you could hear shortly that he is still living.  We have only the dim hope that the German Government is wrong, as it has been wrong in every thing it ever did do, and that we too may have good news of our son.

Our deepest sympathy is with you.  We would be very happy to have a letter from you soon.

Sincerely yours,
Carey & Betty Stearns,
LaPine, Oregon.

The friend of Bob Stearns to which his parents referred in the letter was Lt. Larkin C. Durdin, the pilot of the crew with which Stearns normally flew.  More information is provided in a second letter from Durdin to the Stearns, information which the Stearns passed along to the Farrars in a letter dated January 10, 1945.  The January 10th letter will be published in a future post.

The Stearns, who had been in a state of not knowing the fate of their son since September 28, 1944, were now in a state of not believing it.  On the day they received the telegram with the bad news, December 23, 1944, their son Bob had been missing for eighty-seven days.  They couldn’t yet let themselves believe that their son wouldn’t be coming back.  At this point they weren’t even aware that the War Department’s news of how Bob’s plane had gone down was not correct.  They would soon learn the truth.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2014