S. Sgt. Edwin R. Bill: Tennessee Mountain Proved More Deadly Than 38 B-17 Missions

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Edwin W. Bill's grave at Oakland Cemetery. Peter Boody photo

Memorial Day is about remembering those men and women who gave their lives for their country, including those whom time is beginning to erase from living memory.

One was Edwin Woodruff Bill, a descendant of whaling captains on both sides of his family tree who was born and raised in Sag Harbor. Winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters, and two Bronze Stars, he came back from 38 bombing missions as a B-17 gunner over Germany and France only to die in a training accident in the United States on April 8, 1945, a few weeks before Germany surrendered. He was 29.

Still remembered in Sag Harbor by his sister Frances Sobotka, Staff Sergeant Bill was getting ready to return to duty flying rescue missions in the South Pacific when the B-17 he was aboard on a night training exercise crashed into a mountain near Knoxville, Tennessee.

“He was my idol, like a second father,” said Mrs. Sobotka on Monday. “It was such a loss. The family was never the same after he got killed.”

The youngest of five children, eight years old when her big brother died, she remembers his flag-draped coffin in the living room of the Bill home at the corner of Jermain Avenue and Clinton Street, across from Pierson High School, and how acutely her parents and siblings felt his absence. “Christmases were hard,” she said.

“All I remember of him is we were very close,” she added, and that he was always picking her up to carry her or put her on his lap.

The Depression was rough on Sag Harbor. For the 10 years between his graduation from Pierson High School in 1931 and signing up for the Army on September 2, 1941 — two months before the U.S. entered the war —  young Ed Bill worked at the Thommen family’s Sag Harbor Screw Company on Bay Street then went to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps unit in Bridgehampton. He later joined the Merchant Marine as a crewmember on the SS El Alquinplying between New York, Miami and Galveston.

After joining the Army, he served long enough to decide “he didn’t like long walks,” according to a story told by his widow to her son, so he transferred to the Air Corps.

Like his Sag Harbor niece Kendell Thommen, who was born long after Staff Sergeant Bill’s death, his son Edwin R. Bill can’t remember him directly, but he’s done all he can to know him.

Edwin R. Bill with his father’s World War II flight jacket.

Born three months after his father’s death, he’s now 73, a retired trucking company executive who lives with his wife, Hazel, in Nipoma, California. He came to the United States as an infant with his Scottish mother, the only widow on a transport ship full of war brides. His grandparents, George Tooker Bill and Frances Woodruff Bill, took them in. For the several years they lived in Sag Harbor, family and friends made it a point to tell young Edwin stories all about his father and who he was, including his love of hunting, fishing and clamming.

He remembers his mother, who died about 30 years ago, sometimes saying that she would have been back in Sag Harbor happily digging clams if her husband had survived the war.

“It was fate,” Mr. Bill said this week. “Thirty-eight missions in a tin can over Germany and France and you end up in friendly territory running into a mountain.” He paused, as if speechless, and added almost plaintively, “It was just meant to be.”

“I do see things in myself that remind me of him,” said Mr. Bill, who moved to California at age 13 with his mother and step-father, Bill Raynor, who had met his mother when was a tenant in the house next door to the family.

Mr. Bill, a regular visitor to Sag Harbor, still has his father’s leather flight jacket, with an original painting on the back that he recently had an artist restore; and his father’s silk flight scarf, inscribed by Staff Sergeant Bill with a list 33 cities he’d been on missions to bomb: Berlin, Bremin, Hamburg, Wilhelmshaven, and Leipzig among them. The scarf and jacket had been shipped home to his parents in Sag Harbor with all his personal effects after his death in 1945.

Not too many years ago, Mr. Bill followed in his father’s footsteps to the RAF base at Thurleigh, England, out of which his father flew for 18 months with the 8thAir Force’s 327thBomber Squadron of the 92ndBomb Group. He even stopped in the pub, The Chequers Inn in nearby Bedford, where his mother, Euphemia Jaap of Edinburgh, a nurse, and his father met through a mutual friend.

Edwin Bill and his bride in Scotland, September 1944

She’s the reason he signed on for more missions after he could have gone home with 25 under his belt, according to Mr. Bill’s research — which included a talk with the aged director of the American museum at Thurleigh. A tower controller at the base during the war, he told Mr. Bill that German antiaircraft capabilities had been decimated by then, lowering the risk of volunteering for extra missions.

They were married in Scotland on September 15, 1944. Soon after, Staff Sergeant Bill — possibly planning a military career after the war — took an assignment in the States to train for missions rescuing downed airmen in the Pacific. The plan was for his pregnant wife to follow soon and live with his parents in Sag Harbor until war’s end.

The community can know about Staff Sergeant Bill thanks to a group of Sag Harbor history buffs including Dave Thommen, the husband of Staff Sergeant Bill’s niece, Kendell, the daughter of Francis Sobotka; former Mayor Ed Deyermond and Kevin O’Brien, both local firemen. They were inspired by four pictures of Sag Harbor firemen who were killed during World War II that are mounted in a hallway at the Sag Harbor Firehouse: Edwin Bill, Arthur Browngardt Jr., Edward Olszewski and Joseph Dysken.

Mr. O’Brien was rehanging them when it struck him that he didn’t know much about who they were. Neither did Mr. Deyermond. They launched their efforts to learn about the four men last year starting with Seaman Dysken, who died when Japanese torpedoes sank his ship during the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands in 1943.

Their research resulted in a news story in the Expressjust before Memorial Day a year ago reporting that the hulk of his ship had been discovered by the Research Vessel Petrel, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen.

This year, they put together Staff Sergeant Bill’s story with the family’s help, especially his son Edwin and nephew-in-law, Mr. Thommen. Mr. Deyermond and Mr. O’Brien in the coming months will research the stories of Arthur Browngardt Jr. and Edward Olszewski.

For their research on Staff Sergeant Bill, their finds include front-page stories in the Express reporting Sergeant Bill’s death (in the April 12, 1945 edition) and his military funeral at the family house and then Oakland Cemetery (in the April 19, 1945 edition) and — from Mr. Bill in California — a copy of the letter written by Rev. Donald Crawford of the Old Whalers’ Church to Staff Sergeant Bill’s widow in Scotland, describing the funeral service in vivid detail.

It was one of the largest funeral crowds Rev. Crawford had ever seen, he wrote, overflowing out the front door of the Bill family house. Staff Sergeant Bill’s mother received the flag from his coffin at Oakland Cemetery, just before “a firing squad of four soldiers fired three times into the heavens as a Military Salute,” Rev. Crawford wrote.

Quoting from his “words of comfort” during the service, as he called them, Rev. Crawford reviewed Staff Sergeant Bill’s military career and his close calls, including surviving a crash landing in his crippled B-17 that killed four crewmembers and making multiple flights over the channel to drop D-Day supplies during the Normandy invasion.

His unit was nicknamed “Fame’s Favoured Few.” It received a Presidential Citation from President Roosevelt “for extraordinary heroism, determination and esprit de corps in action against the enemy on January 11, 1944,” when his division “led the entire Eighth Air Force penetration into central Germany to attack vital aircraft factories.”

At his Oakland Cemetery grave on April 15, 1945, Rev. Crawford’s final words were a prayer.

“Our heavenly Father,” he said, “as we gather together in this hour of tragedy and sorrow and distress of nations, help us in faith look forward to that Day when, under Thee, ‘men shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’”

 

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