Memorializing Two Hero Pilots From One Tiny Town in New York State, Both Lost in WWII
A new mural in North Rose recalls the price of victory
Just sixteen students graduated from North Rose, New York in 1938. Two of them, John Blakeslee Thomas and Melvin Donald Putnam, became pilots in the US Army Air Corps. Thomas flew a B-24 Liberator bomber, Putnam a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. Although they died more than 1,500 miles and 18 months apart, both men were killed in action during crucial, and especially dangerous, missions. Friends in life, they are now close together again, at last.
Earlier this year, after nearly eight decades in European military cemeteries, Thomas was finally identified and brought home to be with his family. I wrote about that story because they are my own family. John, who went by Blake, died on the darkest day in the history of American military aviation, Operation Tidal Wave. It was a daring, yet futile attempt to sneak under German radar and bomb Hitler’s gas station.
His classmate, who went by Donald, was escorting bombers over Northern France during Operation Crossbow, the desperate campaign to stop Hitler’s V-1 rockets, when his flight was attacked by German fighters. He was last seen turning to engage the threat and his final radio transmission “said he was O.K. providing he could get out of this place.” His body was recovered when allied forces liberated France.
After raising funds from the community by ‘selling’ individual bricks for donations, the Rose Historical Society is memorializing the two men with a public mural. Artists Mark DeCracker and Mark Williams asked me to be the military history consultant on this project after we met at my uncle John’s long-delayed funeral in May. I humbly accepted his incredible offer and now I get to see the project finally coming together.
Above and below: B-17 bombers hitting a V-1 launch site somewhere near La Rochelle, France, on 5 January 1944. The tail of Donald’s plane is visible on the left. He is turning to counter a German FW-190. Thousands of British civilians were killed by the buzz bombs. Mark has asked me many questions about what colors to paint things, how many planes to depict, and so on, but the key thing for Donald’s memorial is to show everyone the apple painted on his fuselage.
Wayne County was, and still remains, the unofficial capital of the American apple industry. When you go there, you are literally surrounded by miles and miles of apple trees. Pay no heed to the PR from Manhattanites, the real ‘big apple’ is outside of Rochester. Donald flew into his last fight with his love of home emblazoned on his plane. No town could possibly ask for a greater tribute, or sacrifice. So of course Mark is going to put that at the center of the mural.
On the left side of the mural they are painting the Ploesti oil refinery under attack at low level by American Liberators. Mark had me show him several good photos taken during OP Tidal Wave showing just how insanely low the pilots flew that day. Survivors report severe turbulence from the fires and explosions of bombs dropped by other planes. A rare battle broke out between the gunners in the planes and the gunners on the ground, resulting in the loss of many planes, including uncle John’s.
Here is the sketch Mark sent me a couple of months ago. Each portrait on the sides will have a paragraph of text explaining the date and circumstances of his heroic sacrifice. It is my job to decide what words go there. What a daunting assignment. Reader, I confess I have procrastinated on this intimidating task. Worse, I am expected to come to North Rose sometime in the new year to help dedicate this mural and explain their stories to the community. Donald’s family likely never knew what his last mission even was. Fog of war lingers eighty years later: how do I fix that?
From Mark, here is the actual mural in progress a few days ago:
What I intend to do about this fog of war is write a book. It will not be a big one, just a small monograph. Rather than go through a publisher I will make copies available through Amazon self-publishing and raise my own funds to return to North Rose for the dedication. The last time I went, practically everyone in town turned out for uncle John’s funeral procession, flags waving and hands on hearts. What patriots. A town that produces such amazing people should have a book to read about their boys. Two little paragraphs will never be enough.
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