Honor your hero with thoughts, memories, images and stories.
He was just a kid. 2nd Lt. William Russell Bailey was my mother's little brother, her only sibling. The outbreak of World War II and the chance to serve ignited a flame in him. He terminated an engineering curriculum at the University of Kentucky to volunteer for service shortly after his eighteenth birthday, passing up a student deferment that would have ultimately spared his life. Bill, a clever young man, somehow managed to fib about his age in order to gain admission to the highly competitive United States Army Air Corps navigation school. The youngest on base to be commissioned an officer, he earned the nickname “Sonny” among his peers. He served as a navigator with the 8th Royal Air Force, 305th Bomber Squadron, Chelveston, England, aboard B-17s, the mighty Flying Fortress. As an adult I came across a dusty box tucked away in a dark corner of my mother's attic, filled with memories of my Uncle Bill whom I never met. I arrived too late in this world to hear the sound of his laughter. I know him now, rather intimately, and he is my hero. That box held the iconic wings that he earned, the dice every G.I. seemed to carry, a musty, olive-colored uniform jacket with brass buttons tarnished by age, faded snapshots of a handsome flier in bomber jacket with the sun in his eyes and a cigarette dangling carelessly from his boyish mouth, and that awful tear-stained telegram. Most revealing was an intriguing collection of letters to his mother, my Granny, lovingly preserved now for nearly seventy-five years. These letters provide a lively glimpse into his colorful personality, his last year on earth, and his bright dreams for the future that he would never know. With his six foot tall blond good looks, he was a self-styled ladies man. He wrote to his mother requesting nylons and tubes of lipstick, scarce wartime luxuries “for the girls.” He also asked shyly about the girl next door. His letters were filled with gentle words of reassurance to assuage any maternal worries, eager questions about hometown football scores and ardent yearnings for his mother's cooking. In an almost childlike manner he begged for sweets from her Kentucky kitchen to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. Returning from a bombing mission over Germany, Uncle Bill's plane, The Black Swan, was hit in the gas tank by a German Messerschmitt and burst into flames off the coast of France. The fire spread the length of the ship from nose to tail. Its last radio transmission was the voice of the captain, “One B-17 going down.” Seven out of ten crewmen bailed out but one parachute was burning furiously, deployed an instant too soon. The rest of the squadron still flying in formation observed an aviator plummet to the sea while his buddies floated downward around him, watching helplessly. It was later reported that a German U-boat was seen heading towards the site of the incident. My Granny received the heartbreaking telegram she prayed would never come. Bill was missing in action, July the fourth, 1943. MacKinlay Kantor, prominent American war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winning author, befriended Bill while assigned to his airbase in England. When he heard that his friend “Sonny” had gone down, Kantor published a stirring, vivid poem entitled “One Chute Burned” in the Saturday Evening Post, eulogizing my Uncle Bill and that fateful mission. The editors of The Post regarded it as “the single most moving piece of literature to come out of this war” and devoted a two-page spread and color illustration to the epic poem. Kantor wrote numerous bestselling wartime novels, short stories, poetry and plays, as well as the screenplay for the post-World War II Oscar-winning movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” But it is my family's firm opinion that “One Chute Burned” with its one-hundred and sixty-seven haunting lines is the prolific author's crowning achievement. The poem, in part, reads: "Did you burn, did you burn up, O Bailey the Kid? One of you went with all haste to the ground. Seven white parachutes, now morning glories, lilies of France on the Fourth of July. … But one was on fire, a little flame chewing, eating the glossiest silk of the chute. Who let his hand tremble too eager and wild? … Fourth of July, and you yell in Kentucky, shoot off your crackers and frighten the cats. Wait for the rockets in dusk, and the candles, sparklers and flower pots, then you would sleep. … Go to sleep in the past, Bailey the Kid, on the Fourth of July. But where sleep you now with the imps in your spirit? … Bailey, who burned?” Mr. Kantor contacted my grandmother, an act of kindness which planted the seed of friendship for years to come. In one of his letters he recalled the young officer as wearing “the longest hair of anyone in the squadron, and it was always sticking out in tufts around his neck and over his ears. His sins were many but mild; in short, he was the sort of madcap youngster whom anyone would love on sight, foibles and all.” He wrote, “One hates to make distinctions, but of all the boys I've known who have gone down I think I should most like to see Bill now.” The late Andy Rooney of CBS Sixty Minutes fame, a journalist for "Stars and Stripes" during the war, memorialized the tragic event fifty years later in his 1995 book, My War. He and I exchanged warm letters, precious copies of which were added to the sad box. My Granny exhibited unwavering faith and a plucky sort of courage. She strongly believed that her sweet boy would be returned to her at war's end. Granny held on tight to the grim possibility that her son was alive somewhere in a German prisoner of war camp. In that box I found a handful of letters from Washington, DC, in reply to her insistent inquiries as to the details of that infamous day. Her tenacity still inspires me. Granny fought a valiant mother's battle in seeking confirmation of her son's destiny, but her indefatigable correspondence with the War Department ultimately proved fruitless. I am his youngest niece, probably the last woman in line to grieve the passing of Bill Bailey. I was stunned when I first stumbled upon the specifics of this poignant chapter of my family's history. I have come to fervently love my young uncle who died before I was born. I am the keeper of the sacred mementos of his life and death, the caretaker of his relics. I am so very proud of him. All souls on board the Black Swan were lost and no further records of the incident were released. Uncle Bill never found his way home to his mother's warm caramel pies. Granny eventually hung a gold star in her front window for the boy who vanished at the tender age of nineteen. My family doesn't have a gravestone to visit, but the box, Uncle Bill's cardboard memorial, is on the floor at my feet as I type these words. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13