Georgetown, Ill., and the small village of Walgrave, Northamptonshire County, England, are thousands of miles apart, but during World War II, a note of gratitude made its way from the Walgrave Parish Council to the family of Lt. Leo C. Cebulski of Georgetown. Cebulski was a member of an American air crew on a B-17 bomber, and a courageous act by the crew prompted the Parish Council to send the note.
Cebulski and his crew were completing their 32nd mission on that fatal April day when their plane went down near Walgrave. The 8th Air Force crew was just three missions short of the 35 required for them to go home.
James Howery of Danville was a B-17 pilot and also a member of the 8th Air Corps. He noted at the time he flew his first mission in 1943, only 25 missions were required. The air group he was assigned to as a replacement had lost 80 percent of their planes. On one mission Howery flew, 42 planes and 430 men were lost.
He noted when losses began to decline, the number of flights men were required to make was raised to 35, not that it was that much safer, he added. Planes and crews were still lost and the Germans continued to attack the bombers with heavy anti-aircraft fire until the war ended.
“It wasn’t always easy going back up, but we did,” Howery noted in an interview, “I think our plane had at least some damage every time I came back.” He brought home a large, rough-edged piece of iron (flak) that had passed through the fuselage of his plane. It was stopped by his flight jacket, preventing a serious injury.
“No one forced crew members to get in their planes, but they did, mission after mission,” he remembered. The only member of his crew who left was his bombardier after he was wounded on a flight. Howery pointed out there was a lot of tension, because “in an instant you, your crew, and your plane can be gone.” But he said he never failed to admire the way the men accepted the danger and responded to the challenge.
That is what Lt. Cebulski and his crew did. When their plane was going down on its way home from their 32nd mission, their final act was to make sure the plane did not crash in the village of Walgrave. The note from the Walgrave Parish Council to Col. Theodore R. Melton noted the “gallant crew” remained at their posts in an effort to avoid a crash in the village. It asked the colonel to pass on the “sympathetic gratitude” of the village residents to the appropriate place in the U.S.A.
One of those places was the home of young Lt. Leo Cebulski of Georgetown, Ill. Those who wore the uniform and gave all should never be forgotten.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.