Thursday, September 21, 2006
Join me in honoring men, women of 364th Fighter Group
By CHELIUS CARTER
Life’s experiences weave into a complex personal tapestry…a tapestry from which one’s value system can be derived and hopefully, create a moral compass to better define our character that we might serve as fitting custodians for those experiences and the people we meet along the way.
For myself, the weaving of that tapestry predated my birth by 10 years…to 21 March 1945, when in a few violent seconds my family’s history was altered forever in the untimely death of 2nd Lt. Chelius Clifton Howard, at the controls of his P-51 Mustang.
Chelius or “Cheely,” as we called him, was my mother’s oldest and favored brother and I, coming along in 1955, was named for him in tribute. I cannot remember a time in my youth that I did not wonder about this handsome fighter pilot for whom I was named and had no idea how it would inform my adult path, in the years to come. So “Cheely” was my namesake uncle and in 1978, at age 23, I determined that it was time to put thoughts into action and wrap up some long untended family business.
Briefly, my uncle was a pilot in the 364th Fighter Group, assigned to bomber-escort duty, tasked with protecting the heavy B-17 and B-24 bombers of the U.S. 8th Air Force, flying their missions out of England during World War II. He was shot down while strafing a jet base in north Germany and was listed as “MIA” for several months, until his grave was found next to the wreckage of his P-51, which was located in a wooded area near the Luftwaffe airfield called Achmer, by an RAF aircraft mechanic. After much tangled investigation, my family subsequently received the bitter news in a tersely worded Western Union Telegram in July of 1945. We never knew what happened.
In 1978, I began to advertise in newspapers and veterans’ magazines, looking for pilots who might have known my Uncle Cheely in the 364th Fighter Group, knowing that I was seeking four to five particular pilots that he went overseas with, that my family recalls as his friends. As this search developed, what I began to find were scores of other 364th pilots who either vaguely remembered Lt. Howard or not at all, due to being either in a different squadron of the group or they had either finished their tour or had been shot down and wound up as a prisoner of war, before Cheely was assigned to the 364th. What I also found was that these men, while curious as to why someone of my age was interested in this peculiar job they had during the War…were quite keen to know who else I had located from their unit. These men, most were “citizen soldiers” went to war, survived, got out and honorably went back to their interrupted lives and got on with it. Now some 23-year-old kid wants to know something about what they did back then…this was a real novelty in 1978. The accidental result was the first official reunion of the 364th Fighter Group in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1983, which I largely helped to organize and subsequently was asked to serve as their official historian in 1985 and have been serving as such since.
In 1978, I traveled to locate the crash-site, based upon a brief description of the site, from an American Graves Registration report made in September 1945. This trip I made was a character-forming adventure…and another story entirely; I have returned to Achmer Airdrome many times and have managed to create what will surely be life-long friendships amongst our former enemies and was eventually able to pinpoint the precise crash-site and was last over there in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary date.
This weekend, I am charged with hosting the 24th annual Reunion of the 364th Fighter Group in Nashville, Tennessee and following this meeting, several of the pilots are coming down to beautiful and historic Holly Springs, to experience some real Southern hospitality…so the greatest people in the world: the men and ladies of the 364th Fighter Group Association will meet the “other” greatest people in the world; the townsfolk of Holly Springs…so be looking for some old fighter jocks, sporting blue and white baseball caps as they make their way around town over the days of 25-28 of September, culminated by a private tour of our lovely antebellum homes and churches.
These are the men and ladies with whom I have spent much of my adult life associating and over the ensuing 28 years many have become my dearest friends… from whom I have learned much. In life’s passing, one sometimes spends a lot of time with people and working on projects, which ultimately wound up making no difference at all in one’s character development or in the enrichment of society, in general. Having an integral role in founding the 364th Fighter Group Association has been one of the most worthwhile and rewarding endeavors in my life…and now, in these latter days of our time together…it is like losing favorite uncles, as well as having gotten to know the one I never knew by intimate and personal friendships with his colleagues that he left behind so many years ago. Honor these men and all WW II veterans when you see them; their like will not pass this way again.
So, what’s in a name? Quite a bit.
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