Mystery of the missing airman

Way Back When

Casualty: Joseph P. Connor Jr. was listed as `Missing in the European Area' in March of 1944. More than 50 years later, the pieces of the puzzle came together.

May 08, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The dreaded telegram arrived from the War Department in Washington on a warm August day in 1945.

For the family of airman Joseph P. Connor Jr., a handsome, young airman from Allegheny Avenue in Towson, it would be the beginning of a mystery that would last for more than 50 years.

Connor, a first lieutenant and bombardier aboard a Consolidated B-24D "Liberator" bomber of the 36th Bomb Squad of the 8th Air Force, had been listed as "Missing in the European Area" in March of 1944.

And now, nearly 17 months later, the Western Union telegram confirmed that the 23-year-old Towson Catholic High School graduate had been killed in action during a mission over Southern France in the early morning hours of March 4, 1944.

He was first buried in a cemetery in Orleans, France, in the Loire Valley, and was later moved to the U.S. Military Cemetery at Solers, France.

In 1948, at the request of his family, Connor's body was returned to Towson, where a Requiem Mass was offered at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church that October. He was later buried at Mount St. Moria Cemetery.

For Connor's family and the families of the six other crewmen who lost their lives, the government offered no explanation or details as to what happened on the crew's final mission.

John J. Connor Jr., who was Connor's godson and 5 years old at the time, remembers asking his grandfather about what happened to his uncle.

"The family never was told anything else. My grandfather knew very little," says Connor, now the controller for the Baltimore law firm of Ober Kaler Grimes & Shriver.

In an unpublished monograph on the incident, Joan Connor Burke, a niece, wrote: "His grandfather, weary from grief and the lack of response to inquiries about his son's death, could only reply that it all happened a long time ago. Clearly, he didn't know much he could tell John, and the government's reticence still hurt."

Joseph P. Connor Sr., who died in 1963 after serving as registrar of wills for Baltimore County for 31 years, and his wife, Florence, who died in 1986, spent the rest of their lives wondering what happened to their son.

John Connor Jr.'s interest in his uncle's fate never flagged. He immersed himself in research about the air war in Europe. Turning points in his research came when he read "Carpetbaggers," by Ben Parnell, published in 1987, and when the government began declassifying documents relating to the World War II missions in the 1990s.

"Carpetbaggers" details the joint covert OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and British SOE (Special Operations Executive) operations code-named "Carpetbagger," which aided the French Resistance with "supply and spy" drops. The crews, which flew specially modified B-24s, were a select group who operated in complete secrecy and fraternized only among themselves.

"The planes were painted black and they flew at low altitude, about 500 feet," says Connor. "They would drop agents, supplies or even bicycles only after the Resistance flashed the right code with a flashlight from the ground."

In 1997, Connor received a postcard from Mary Whipps in Olympia, Wash., who was trying to locate families of crew members who had flown with her uncle, Capt. Gerald Wagstad. Joseph P. Connor's name had turned up on her list.

Wagstad, it turned out, was the pilot on the ill-fated night that his plane, hit by enemy fire, crashed in a farmer's field at Lutz-en-Dunois in the Loire Valley, killing himself, Connor and the remaining crew of six.

The Connor and Whipps families pooled resources and information and later began a friendship with Serge Blandin, a French historian who had a special interest in the Carpetbagger flights.

His efforts had resulted in the identification of the flight crews as well as the location of 12 of 13 Carpetbagger crash sites. The last site eluded him, until he learned from a German wartime report of a crash site at Chateaudun in the Loire Valley. He managed to make the acquaintance of Maurice Dousset, who was mayor and member of the French Parliament and who lived in Lutz-en-Dunois, a small village near Chateaudun.

Dousset, who was a teen-ager during World War II, related to Blandin the events of the night of March 3-4, 1944. What he told him is recounted in Joan Burke's monograph:

"Very late one night, they were awakened by an explosion, and then saw something burning in the field about a hundred yards from the house. Within ten minutes, Germans from the nearby airfield at Chateaudun were swarming over the farm.

"The French were not allowed near the crash site for two days. Witnesses who watched the plane fall from the sky said the crew had no time to bail out. Still others remembered how the Luftwaffe handled the bodies of the young fliers with care as they removed them for burial. ... The Germans removed from the wreckage everything they thought significant or useful -- scrap metal was badly needed by the Reich -- and the wreckage with its four ruined engines was dragged to a corner of the field," Burke wrote.

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