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An American Family

By Cindy Goodman
Splasher Six Vol 31, Summer 2000, No. 3
Cindy Goodman, Editor

Coffeyville, Kansas, originally a trading post to the Cherokee and Osage Indian nations was made famous by cows, bricks, and by the infamous and inept Dalton Gang. It’s a sleepy, little town in the middle of the country, and you really begin to see this while driving through the countryside dotted with small towns, farmhouses and pride-filled football fields. Dairy Bars like “The Hornet’s Nest” (in honor of the hometown team called “The Hornets”) still serve up cherry limeades and hamburgers to die for. People smile and wave, even when they don’t know you. It was while driving to Coffeyville for this interview that I began to realize, for perhaps the first time, that this was truly the heart of America that I’d always heard about. I grew up thinking that the so-called breadbasket of America was its heart, but I was wrong. Small town America is where the heart of the country is, and it’s not limited to Kansas or the Midwest. It’s all over this land, wherever Mom’s and Dad’s still teach respect and patriotism, honor and duty.

In the early 1940’s, William and Grace Cary were busy raising their rambunctious family of five boys and two girls. (Kenneth, Lois, Maxine, Marvin, twins Dwayne and Dwight, and Tommy) Coming out of the depression, the Carys may not have been rich in belongings, but they shared a wealth of family love and devotion. Of the seven children, Dwayne was the most happy-go-lucky, remembers his older brother, Marvin. He had a ready smile and was always up for some hijinks or other, often thought up by either himself or twin-brother Dwight. Forget the Dalton Gang, Mom Cary had a gang of her own to care for and her hands full, but she loved every minute of it. She was a great cook, and her brood appreciated this talent especially. She was particularly famous for her beef stew. When she wasn’t cooking, she was busy with the everyday chores that raising a family involves. Always vigilant, she once had to leave her sick bed to rescue Dwayne, who was dangling helplessly from a tree, suspended by an S-hook and line through his cheek.

Leona Cary, wife of oldest son, Kenneth is somewhat the family historian. She loves to tell the story of how Dwayne would come by the house to hold his new niece Marsha “Marsha got her days and night mixed up,” laughs Leona, “and, it never failed, I’d just get her to sleep and Dwayne would come by to hold her! He just loved that baby so much, I couldn’t resist letting him pick her up.”

When the war came, the Cary’s cried and prayed and sent four sons off wearing the uniform of their country. Like so many other thousands of Americans parents, they posted stars in their window…four of them. Before the war was over, one of the stars would be gold.

All over America young men were boarding trains and waving goodbye to moms and girlfriends. In Coffeyville, the girls would go down by the train tracks to smile and wave to the young men passing by in the troop trains. Sometimes the giggling teenagers would throw small packages tied up with hair ribbons adorned with their address attached to the guys leaning out the windows. It was in this setting that Kenneth, Marvin, and twins Dwayne and Dwight left for war. All four brothers joined the Army. Kenneth left Leona home with baby daughter Marsha, to march through Europe with the 42nd Retrieve and Reclamation outfit of the Air Corps. Marvin became part of the famous 104th Timberwolf Infantry Division. He was part of the 555th Anti-Aircraft Artillery and fought through the Battle of the Bulge and on into Germany. Dwight and Dwayne followed Kenneth to the Army Air Corps. Dwight became a navigator on a B-29 in the Pacific flying missions over the Japan while Dwayne went to the ETO as part of the 100th Bomb Group, 418th Squadron.

With the brothers gone, the Cary women pulled together. Sisters Maxine and Lois went to school and helped Mom Cary with baby Tommy. Leona and Marsha visited often. They all worked hard to keep plenty of letters written to the guys. Generous Dwayne was often short of cash, so Leona would occasionally send money orders in her letters to him. Mom Cary and Leona sent Easter cards and letters to the four Cary men. Leona’s letters were always full of stories about Marsha and her growth.

On the morning of April 7th, 1945, the mission of the 100th was the Buchen Oil Storage Depot. Most at the briefing considered it to be a milk run. Spirits were high and there was much lighthearted banter among the men as they made their way out to their respective hardstands. After a short weather delay the group was given the green flare to start their engines.

Although encountering only light flak, the group came under an intense ME-109 attack for approximately 33 minutes. Flying in AC 42-97071, Pilot Arthur Calder and Co-Pilot Kenneth Carr fought to keep their ship on course. Navigator William Burbach and Bombardier Victor Hoffman manned the guns in the front of the B17. The ship shuddered as the gunners desperately fought off enemy attacks. Flight Engineer Leonard Piepgras manned the top turret while Ball Turret Gunner Carl Donnell spun in the ball turret below the ship. From his waist position, Dwayne Cary balanced on a sea of spent shells and kept firing his 50 caliber at the attacking ships.

At approximately 1302, an ME109 attacked the Calder crew from 6 o’clock high. The B17’s wing was completely shot away from the fuselage by a furious volley. The ME109 collided with the severed wing and both exploded. AC 42-97071 was last seen spinning to the ground on fire. Her crew died with her. It was Dwayne Cary’s first mission.

Kenneth Cary was far behind the enemy lines. His family had not received word of him for months. Fighting in Belgium, Marvin was the first to receive word from home that Dwayne was MIA. “I wanted to leave right then to go look for him,” Marvin remembers. “We would look up in the sky and see hundreds of B-17’s flying overhead. Those of us on the ground knew they were on their way to hit Germany with everything they had.”

When the nightmare became real to Leona was when her last letter to Dwayne was returned unopened. “I still have that letter,” she told me during our interview. “I’ll never open it.”

As a replacement gunner, Dwayne wasn’t at Thorpe Abbotts long enough to make many friends. He never had a chance to write home about his missions, about the fear, excitement, or pride he might have felt afterwards. Like so many others, he was lost almost before he could begin. But Dwayne’s impact, Dwayne’s spirit, if you will, was not lost. With each young life placed on freedom alter, the spirit of the 100th grew stronger, more determined to face down its bloody foe.

Dwayne is buried in the Ardennes cemetery in Belgium along with Arthur R. Calder, Kenneth R. Carr, William J. Burbach, Joseph C. Haller, Carl Donnell, and Leon Briggs. They are joined there by 109 fellow 100th Bomb Group airmen and 5,212 other young Americans. The Cary family made the decision to leave him there, resting with his fellow men in arms, even though it meant they might never have the chance to visit his burial place.

Each November 29th, Dwayne Cary’s birthday, a Belgian policeman named Serge Mondelaers brings flowers to his grave. Serge places the flowers next to the tiny American flag that marks the spot. Before Memorial Day, Serge cleans Dwayne’s headstone with sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy. Next he moves down the line and cleans the crosses of the rest of the Calder crew. Now spotlessly white, the crosses seem to stand out from the others. The Belgians call the sand “blood sand” to symbolize the sacrifice of so many American young men during the battle. It is a fitting tribute.

Serge has, as I have, become a part of the Cary family, if not in name, in spirit. Their love, their devotion to each other and to this country reaches out and envelopes those around them.

The media and the pundits of gloom would have us believe that those are lost ideals in a lost generation. I disagree! One would have to have his head in the sand not to see the problems that face today’s families and children, but there are still good kids and good families and small town loyalties. America is still a dream to be reached for people who risk their very lives to reach these shores. America is still the land of the brave, whose children still rise up in her defense. It was in this America that I met and learned to love an American family, the Carys.