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NEWS | Sept. 7, 2011

15 AS honors World War II Airmen

By Staff Sgt. Nicole Mickle Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

A part of what makes an airlift squadron so successful at accomplishing the mission is the trust and camaraderie among the members. The 15th Airlift Squadron represented this by honoring eight World War II fallen service members from the 15th Troop Carrier Squadron at two commemoration ceremonies held Sept. 3 and 4 in Courmayeur, Italy and Bourg Saint Maurice, France.

Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Sonkiss, 15 AS commander and 12 Team Charleston Airmen participated in the ceremonies honoring the crew of B-17 #43-39338. The B-17 Flying Fortress crew was from the 15th Troop Carrier Squadron which is now the 15 AS. French and Italian dignitaries, community members as well as family members of the fallen crew were in attendance.

The entire B-17 eight-man crew was lost after their aircraft went down at Aiguille des Glaciers, one of the rugged peaks in the French Alps, located near Mont Blanc, the highest point in Europe, and close to the French-Italian border. The crew was assigned to the European Air Transport Command, 61st Troop Carrier Group, 15th Troop Carrier Squadron during World War II.

On Nov. 1, 1946, the B-17 was on a night flight from Naples, Italy to London, England. After radioing in its successful takeoff, nothing further was heard from the aircraft until a French Alpine patrol discovered the plane wreckage on the 15,000 foot peak during routine maneuvers July 28, 1947. Four additional trips were made to the dangerous peak to recover the bodies and to allow the U.S. Air Force to investigate the crash site. Since the wreckage had scattered between France and Italy, the ceremonies were held at the II rifugio Elisabetta in Courmayeur, Italy and Refuge des Motets in the Valley des Chapieux, Bourg Saint Maurice, France.

Francis Raout was one of the Alpine patrol members who discovered the B-17 wreckage and is the Committee Vice President for the Commemoration of the B-17 of the Auigille des Glaciers. "Three years ago I asked if there was a memorial at the site," Raout said. "I did not know that the fortress had divided itself between France and Italy. Today I am delighted with the two memorial plaques in Italy and France."

It was later determined that the downed aircraft missed clearing the peak by only a few yards and the explosion from the impact scattered remains on the snowy slopes. This made discovery impossible until the next summer when warmer temperatures melted the snow.

The names of the crew are listed on both plaques. Members of the crew were Col. Ford Fair and Col. Hudson Upham, command pilots, Maj. Lawrence Cobb Jr., co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Alfred Ramirez, navigator, Staff Sgt. William Hilton, assistant engineer, Staff Sgt. Zoltan Dobovich, radio operator, Tech Sgt. William Cassell, assistant radio operator and Master Sgt. John Gilbert, engineer.

Anne Cobb, president of the committee for the commemoration of the B-17 of the Auigille des Glaciers is the daughter of Maj. Cobb. She was born a week after his death and never knew much about what happened to her father until recently.

"I learned more about my father by being a part of the commemoration ceremony committee then from my own family," said Cobb. "There is a lot of emotion here for me because of the presence of the U.S. Air Force. They came here to honor what our parents did in the past. Now, with these commemoration ceremonies they will live forever and that is a great comfort to me."

Cobb left the United States with her mother immediately after she was born so they were never able to attend the memorial ceremonies for her father and the other crew members which were held in Arlington National Cemetery Oct.10 1947. During the commemoration ceremony in Bourg Saint Maurice, France, Sonkiss presented Cobb with a folded American flag that her mother was never able to receive.

"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the people in our squadron to participate in a commemoration for a generation who gave so much to our country," said Sonkiss. "It was incredible to see the family members of the deceased Airmen. It was really about them and the communities from both Italy and France who really worked hard to give them the closure they deserved. On the same token, for our Airmen to be out here and see this, I think it gave them a greater appreciation for the sacrifices that have been made by the World War II generation. I'm very proud that we were able to support the event."

Captain Sean Burke, 437th Operations Group executive officer and the U.S. Air Force coordinator for the commemoration ceremonies said, "This was the culmination of a yearlong effort to commemorate these eight fallen Americans," I think it is extremely important to remember the sacrifices of the Airmen that have given their lives to ensure not only our freedom but also the freedom of our European Allies. We provided closure to the family members and the French and Italians who have been involved with this tragedy their entire lives. The look on Ms. Cobb's face as she was finally presented an American flag in honor of her father will be etched in my memory forever."

Four honor guard members from the 15 AS posted the colors at both ceremonies to pay respect to their fallen comrades.

"They may have served with the 15th Troop Carrier Squadron over 65 years ago, but they are and always will be a part of our 15th Airlift Squadron," said Staff Sgt. Paolo Santos, a loadmaster with the 15 AS and a member of the honor guard team at the commemoration ceremonies. "It was an honor to pay tribute to them and their families at both ceremonies."

At both ceremonies, there was a mixture of French, Italian and Americans. Translators were on hand so everyone in attendance could understand the many speeches that were given. At both ceremonies, children unveiled the plaques.

"It was heartening to see the young American, Italian and French children come together," said Burke. "Language and nationality was no barrier to them playing together and participating in the events. When they were mimicking our honor guard, I felt a sense of hope that those future generations will continue to work together with such ease as I have had working with their parents in this endeavor."

A member of the committee, Gianni Boschis, had found a U.S. insignia while exploring the Aiguille Des Glaciers as a boy. The insignia was from one of the pilots on the B-17. He misplaced it some time ago, a moment Boschis said was devastating, but he never forgot. That day led him to become a committee member.

After hearing this story, Burke presented Boschis with his U.S. insignia at the commemoration ceremony in France.

"I thought it appropriate to replace the lost insignia with one of my own so that he, or maybe his children, can have memories of not only the Americans that lost their lives on the mountain but also the Americans that travelled to be a part of their ceremonies," Burke said.

In 2008, Raout wrote a poem about the crash called "American Heroes" that forever changed his life. He posted the poem online and immediately began receiving feedback about the plane, the mission, the crew, the searches and the families. That poem was the beginning of what has now led to the families and members of three countries coming together to remember and honor those eight lives lost that tragic day in the mountains.

A verse from his poem reads, "The night stars over the mountain top, will shine on your names carved in the rock. The stars of freedom under your wings were the jewels of your battle for her. Our gratitude will last forever."