T/Sgt. Ralph A. Willett
The reason why I’m building this site dates back to the winter of 2001. Summer 2001 I wrote a letter to the Civil Comity US Military Cemetery Margraten with the request to adopt a US Soldiers grave.
The US Military Cemetery at Margraten
The adopting of graves originates from the people of Margraten who started to tend graves as soon as the Cemetery was erected in 1945. Showing their gratitude by laying flowers and corresponding with the next of kin in the USA. Letting them know that someone is taking care of their loved ones grave overseas. Even now, after 55 years, Dutch and US Families are still, writing, mailing and visiting each other. If you are interested in the history of the US Military Cemetery at Margraten, you can contact the Rabobank tel. 0031-43-4588222 or send me an mail at the mail address at the bottom of this page. Only there the book “Crosses in the Wind ” is being sold and it is written by Lt. Col. J.J. Shomon, who erected the Cemetery. The book gives a perfect display from the Cemetery’s History and gives an insight about all the hard and sometimes difficult times the Gravediggers Company had in building this beautiful Cemetery. The book is available in an English version.
By adopting a grave you commit yourself in attending and visiting the grave mainly at specific dates as: Memorial Day, date of the soldiers death and birth. In November 2001 I got a letter that I was appointed technical Sergeant Ralph A. Willett’s grave.
If you’re appointed a grave you only get the information as is in scripted at the gravestone. Date of death, which branch he was in, service number and the State he entered service from. Ralph flew with the 9th Air force, 558 Bomb Squadron, 387th Bomber Group. I started to gather information about the B.26 Bomber and Ralph’s squadron. Within a few days I got a whole lot of new ( internet ) friends and lot’s of information about Ralph’s group. It turned out they were stationed at Maastricht Aachen Airport, back than called Y-44, and that the plane crashed in the little town of Mesch near Maastricht. These to places are only a few miles away from where I live so I was surprised by that. More information about the Group’s stay at Y-44 and the Crash rapport will be added to this site as soon as possible. December 2001 I posted a letter to all the Willett’s living in Nebraska because that’s being the State Ralph entered service from. January 2002 I received an e-mail from Don Willett ( Texas ) that his parents, Sam & Virginia Willett from Superior Nebraska, would like to get in touch with me because they are related to Ralph. Sam is Ralph’s cousin and they knew each other from the time they were kids. It turned out that Ralph’s parents and his only brother are deceased but his widow Lois Willett – Schuck is still alive and still lives in Superior. Lois is now 94 years of age. The marriage of Ralph and Lois was one without children. The Hastings Tribune printed a story about the adaptation of Ralph’s grave, click on the link to view the story www.cnweb.com/tribune/old/mar02/mar04/news1.html . Sam & Virginia and Lois have been sending me pictures and newspaper articles, which will be added to this site. Ever since January 2001 we are calling, writing and sending each other gifts on a regular base. I returned October 2003 from a visit to the Willett family and Lois, Ralph’s widow.
The visit in October has one main purpose, returning Ralph’s Dog tag. During my research I read a book by Ron Putz “Duel in the Skies “ and in the book there was a picture of some plane serial number plates, watches and a Dog Tag.
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I was amazed when I read Ralph’s name on that Dog Tag. My goal from that time on was to get the Dog Tag back to were it belongs, the Willett’s. I contacted Ron Putz and asked if he owned the Dog Tag. He didn’t, he only took the picture at the home of a collector from Maastricht, who dug it up at the Crash site years later. Unfortunately he lost the man’s address. May 2002 I contacted our local newspaper (het Limburgs Dagblad ) and asked the editor Peter Heusschen if they could help me in my quest. January 2003 the newspaper printed an article about my goal to get Ralph’s Dog Tag back to the Willett’s. April 2003 Peter Heusschen called me and told me the Dog Tag was located in the little town Mill, near Nijmegen (known from the movie “a bridge too far “).
Mario Reintjes, a fanatic Airborne collector, bought the Dog Tag in the summer of 2002 at a fair. During a long phone call he agreed giving the Dog Tag back, without being paid back the money, for free, so it could be returned to the Willett’s. I would like to thank Mario Reintjes and Peter Heusschen for their help and efforts to make this possible.
Friday October 3rd 2003 was a special day for me, that day together with my Father, Sam Willett and Donna Christensen (from the Local Newspaper ) I brought a visit to Ralph’s widow, Lois Schuck. Lois was told that we were visiting her, the reason why wasn’t. Sam Willett told her in brief that we came all the way from Holland and that we had something special for her. It was a very special moment as I told Lois, I brought something with me, that was very hard to get hold off. Lois thought that we came all the way from Holland to bring her a copy of a Dog Tag. As I told her the complete story and that it was the actual Dog tag Ralph wore as he crashed, she went silent and started to cry. When she recovered she told me “this is a part of my life I would never have dreamt of being brought back into my life again”.
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During the short time I spent with her, more and more memories came to her mind. She told me they wrote letters to each other every week, in fact, she received his last letter may 9th the day after he crashed and died. He wrote that War was pretty much over and he thought he would be back home soon. I also asked her why she didn’t bring Ralph back to the USA, like most of Ralph’s Crew members. She said that, at that time, a lot of Ralph’s family was sick ( Father and Brother ) and that the Priest said the best thing to do was leaving Ralph in Holland so it would not be a big pressure for the Family. Until this day she still regrets listening and taking the Priest’s advice, she never had the chance to stand at his grave and say goodbye. Lois got re married a few years after Ralph died, her 2nd husband died a year ago. After his death she moved to a Home for the elderly and probably during the movement from her old home and the new home, all the personal items, regarding Ralph, got lost. Pictures, letters, etc.
I visited the house they had built together in 1930, I also visited Bostwick, the town Ralph grew up. Bostwick doesn’t exist anymore, the only thing remaining is the cemetery everything else is gone. The old people have died and their children moved to bigger cities to get work. At the cemetery I went to see the Graves of Ralph’s parents and his two brother, I also saw the remembrance stone Lois had placed in memory of Ralph.
November 2003 I called Virginia Willett, she often visits Lois, Lois was doing great, she still remembers my visit and she keeps the Dog Tag in her purse. She told Virginia that now they won’t be separated again.
At this moment I’m trying to get all the information I can of all the crewmembers. This is difficult due to the limited information I have and strict regulations in the USA about confidential and private information. Most of the info I have to get from Genealogy Sites and the help of local Newspapers. If you think you can help me please let me know. New information will be added as soon as possible.
The men and their history known until now:
Date of birth : May 13th 1909
Ralph was the Son of Milton & Elsie Willett and brother of Homer Willett. Milton died 1950, Homer died 1951, Elsie Willett passed away in 1963. Ralph grew up in Superior where he graduated at the Superior High School, Ralph worked at the local Cement plant where he worked before entering service in 1943. At that time he was married to Lois Herrick, she worked as a teacher at the Portland’s Heights School. Lois remarried after the war, her second marriage was also childless. Her 2nd husband passed away January 2003. Click here for the complete story about returning Ralph’s Dog tag to Lois his widow.
Date of birth : unknown
There are five Robert Sturm's in the 1930 Federal Census of Illinois, all who are about the right age to have served in WW II (unfortunately none with a "P" as a middle initial):
Robert Sturm 7 1922 Son Chicago, Cook, IL
Date of birth : October 5th 1924
Wilbur was the Son of Merrit & Kathryn Harding, Wilbur was their only child. Merrit died in 1965, I don’t know if his wife Kathryn Harding-Budd still lives. Wilbur grew up in Clarion en graduated 1942 at Clarion High school. He was employed at Curtis Wright, Buffalo until he entered service November 1942. It wasn’t until February 1943 that he went into training at Bombardier School in San Angelo, Texas. In July 1944 he picked up B.26 Marauder training at Lake Charles. Wilbur was transferred overseas October 1944 where he flew his 1st mission December 1944, during the battle of the Bulge at the Ardennes. He was promoted 1st Lt. April 1945, just one moth before his death.
Date of birth : may 8th 1924
Ralph was the Son Forrest ( July 1899 – April 1964 ) & Marguerite Leighty - Hiler ( November 1901 – August 1985, Boise, Idaho) and brother of Joan Leighty ( born 1927 ). At this moment we are trying, myself and Mr. Gray, from the Journal Gazette paper at Fort Wayne if there still are relatives or even if his sister maybe alive. We’ll keep you up-dated. Frank Gray printed a column July 8th, and within a few hours he was able to mail me the first reactions:
“I got a call from a woman who knew him when they were freshmen in high school. She has a group-shot of him from 1939. I found a woman who worked with his mother, and she talked about how devastated she was when he died en how everyone thought that it was so pitiful that he died the last day of war. A man called and said he went to school with him and that he was in the 1940-1941 yearbook, they put his name down as Robert in the 1942 yearbook. The Senior year picture will be added to the site. I found a woman who lived behind his parents, she recalls that Ralph’s sister Joan lived somewhere in Texas. She is going to look for old address books to see if she can find an address”. Some hours later the second mail arrived : “I got a call from a man who said he was Ralph’s first cousin. He also said that Joan, Ralph’s sister, is living in Plano Texas. Detail to contact her should be given soon.
Ralph graduated from North Side High School in Fort Wayne, where he was a member of the national Honor Society, an academic Society for top students. He graduated in 1942 and went to Purdue University, where he was studying chemical engineering. During his first year at Purdue, he enlisted in the Army and was called into active duty March 1943. He went into pilot training and received his wings March 1944. September 1944 he was sent to Europe, where he flew 80 missions until that fatal day in May 1945.
July 14th got an e-mail from Frank Gray telling me that Joan, Ralph’s sister, is alive. She lives in Dallas, Texas and is 76 years. Not only he mailed me the address and also the phone number and her wanting to talk to me. That same evening I called her and we had a long and pleasant conversation. She expressed how glad she was by me doing this, that it all brought back memories. Ralph died on his 21 birthday and he had engaged himself to a girl in Fort Wayne, they had wedding plans. Joan remembered coming home from school the day that her parents got word from the bad news from Holland as if it was yesterday. Her parents were devastated. From the re-interment ceremony she couldn’t recall that much. Ralph is buried at the Lindenwood Cemetery at Fort Wayne where his parents were lay to rest with him. She recalled that her parents corresponded with a Dutch young woman who tended Ralph’s grave until he was re-interred in the USA. She doesn’t know a name, because all the letters got away after her parents died. Her parents planned to visit this Dutch woman in the year Joan’s father would retire from work. Unfortunately Ralph and Joan’s father died that same year. So the woman never could be thanked. After hearing what my local newspaper had did for me I am trying to convince Joan to run an editorial article about her searching for this young woman. So she can thank her after all. Joan will be copying some pictures and will write down things she remembers so they will be available on this site.
Date of birth : unknown
Date of birth : unknown
May 9th 2002 I received an e-mail from Nancy Kempner of Omaha Nebraska, a few hundred miles away from Superior where I located, a few months earlier, the Willett’s. Nancy had read the newspaper article from the Hastings Tribune, she contacted them and asked for my address. Nancy and her cousin Lucille Braden, are investigating their uncle Donald Bell’s history, he died in Germany during a Operation behind enemy lines. Nancy was aware that there were Dutchmen adopting US Soldiers graves and the fact that her Uncle also is buried at Margraten Cemetery, she wanted to get in touch with the Committee that handles the Adoptions, to get hold of the Dutch family that is adopting her uncles grave. She expressed her wish to get some new pictures of the Grave and get in touch with the Dutch family and thanking them for their efforts. Some of Donald’s brothers and Sisters are still alive, under whom Nancy’s mother, now 94 years. After giving her the address of the Committee, communication problems arose in language and distance between Nancy and the Committee. That’s the reason my dad contacted the committee for Nancy and got hold of the address of the Dutchman who was the caretaker of Donald’s grave. That person didn’t live on the given address anymore, it turned out he died several years ago. My dad offered to adopt Donald’s grave, after getting involved in a very direct an personal way. My dad was given the care of Donald’s grave and he has send lot’s of pictures to the Bell family.
When I told Nancy the story about Ralph Willett’s Dog tag and my wish to return it to the USA, she offered me to come and stay at her house and drive me around the State of Nebraska. She would drop me of at Superior, when I told her that my dad was coming with me she was very pleased, by than she told me that we were also going to meet Lucille, her cousin. We had a lovely time and they met the Willett’s also for the first time. It was a very special moment as we stood in the Willett’s living room in Superior, realizing that there was one connection that brought us together, the US Military Cemetery at Margraten.
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Donald DeWitt Bell was born June 24, 1912 and died in Flüren, Germany, March 24, 1945. Donald was a Glider Co Pilot at the 305th Troop Carrier Squadron, 442D Troop Carrier Group. He just got married and had adopted a son. Donald died after he and his Co Pilot Louis Brough safely landed , without loss of life, their glider behind enemy lines on march 24 during Operation Varsity. Operation Varsity aim was to get hold of the important German Rhineland with all it’s factories and heavy industries. What happened that day is very well documented by Louis Brough en John A. Crandell Lt. Col. Commanding Air Corps.
John A. Crandell Lt. Col. Commanding Air Corps wrote to Donald’s wife, dated June 12 1945, the following:
After seven days of no word concerning your husband’s status, we carried him as “missing in action” until notified just recently that he had been “killed in action”. He was buried at a United States Cemetery in Margraten, Holland on March 30 1945. A Protestant Chaplain officiated at the burial.
At the time of Donald’s landing, his craft was under heavy small arms fire, and it was essential that he and his crew immediately leave the glider and seek the nearest shelter. Flight Officer Bell, however, was caught in German Crossfire and was fatally wounded by a shot in the groin. Although immediately given blood plasma by combat medical men, Flight officer Bell never regained consciousness so knew no pain or suffering. He passed away in a field hospital at approximately 17.30 hours, 24 march 1945.
Donald’s Co Pilot Louis Brough wrote in his memoirs a different version of the event:
We landed in a field and immediately came under fire by the Germans. One of our troopers , Tommy Ryan, ran to under a wing tip instead of hitting the ground like we told him – and a sniper got him trough the helmet. He dropped instantly. Donald Bell dropped outside of the door under the wing. He moved a little and a sniper got him in the shoulder area. He said “I can’t stand it” and he moved again and got hit again. By the time I reached Donald he was still alive. I got a medic, and he started an IV. One hundred yards away they had set up a field hospital where they were operating in a tent with bullets flying all around. But they classified Donald as having too much internal injury to operate, and they yelled for a Chaplain. One came and said to Bell “I’ll say a prayer with you”. I staid with Donald until he died. He died in my arms.
I hope to give Nancy and Lucille a warm welcome in Holland one time and show them the beautiful Cemetery at Margraten and visit Flüren, Germany, to see where Donald died.