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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
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.
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
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
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.
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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.
Carey & Betty Stearns,
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