This post originally appeared on TIME.com on January 6, 2016. Read it here.
Author and journalist Gregg Jones spent four months at the Kluge Center researching the American bombing campaign during World War II in an effort to better understand the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the “Jerk’s Natural” over Austria in October 1943. The Black Mountain Institute-Kluge Fellow for 2015-2016, Jones sat down with Jason Steinhauer to discuss his project, his family connection to the tragedy, and the legacy of the lost WWII bomber crew.
Hi, Gregg. Thanks for joining us. Let’s start at the beginning: how did this project originate?
This project grew out of my childhood memories of a photograph that my mother kept on her dresser. The black and white image showed ten men posing before a U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberator at an airfield in England in August 1943. One of the men in the photograph was my mother’s oldest brother, Technical Sergeant L.H. White (bottom left). My mother told me that the crew had disappeared during a mission over Austria in October 1943. It devastated her family, and the unanswered questions continued to haunt them for decades.
How did those childhood memories lead to a larger investigation and a book project?
Initially, I wanted to answer the fundamental questions my mother had about her brother and his loss. As I would discover, the other families who had loved ones on this crew had similar questions. Beyond those questions, I wanted to know what these men were like as people. I wanted to know about their lives. What did they experience in the skies over Europe, and on the ground in their deployments?
How did the investigation unfold?
I was visiting my parents in Missouri in 1990, and my mother still had the photograph of the crew on her dresser. So I got a box of my uncle’s personal effects from my mother’s closet and went through it. I started to take notes, build a timeline, and list all the facts that I could glean from the documents. I also found a sheet of addresses of the next-of-kin of all the men. I had no idea how many of these people were still alive, or where they lived after so many decades, so I wrote letters to the hometown newspaper of the men, explaining that I was looking for family or friends of a certain airman who had disappeared over Austria on October 1, 1943. I filed Freedom of Information Act requests and I began writing newspapers in Austria. I began to hear from people within days. Piece by piece, a fuller portrait of the crew and their families emerged.
So when was the crew formed and when did they go into combat?
The crew came together in January and February 1943 at Alamogordo Army Air Base in New Mexico. Their pilot was Lt. William F. Stein, a Brown University graduate, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, from Naugatuck, Connecticut. They were assigned to the 328th Squadron of the 93rd Bombardment Group (or 93rd Bomb Group), part of the 2nd Air Division within the 8th Air Force. Overseas they flew out of the East Anglian village of Hardwick, near Norwich, England, and completed their tactical training school course in mid-June. A few days later, secret orders were issued—Special Orders No. 174—and the crews of the 93rd Bomb Group packed their gear and prepared to head to an unknown destination for an operation known by the codename ‘Soapsuds.’ The codename was soon changed to Tidal Wave. Several weeks would pass before the crews were told they were going to make a daring low-level raid on Hitler’s oil fields at Ploesti, Romania.
The interview continues on The John W. Kluge Center blog.