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Dreams of flying, nightmares of World War II

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From a very young age, Edgar Leon Vantrease, born Aug. 8, 1924, dreamed of flying and he matured in an era when the need for pilots was vital. As America entered World War II, not only did he fulfill his dream of flying, he took on the added responsibility of navigator and bombardier in the United States Army Air Corps.

Drafted in 1943, at age 19, Mr. Vantrease was stationed in Miami for boot camp and was encouraged to take the Air Cadet exam and enrolled at Michigan State University for the next six months. He completed bombardier/navigator training after an additional six months in San Antonio. By 1944, he was flying the Martin B-26 Marauder in Barksdale, La.

Twenty-year-old, Pilot/Navigator, Leon Vantrease, boarded the ship, HMS Mauretania, in the fall of 1944. Weeks later the crew disembarked for Standstead, England, home of the 344th Marauder Bombing Group.

More than 67 years have passed and Mr. Vantrease clearly recalled the missions he flew. In 1944, by checking the mission board before turning in at night, the young pilot knew if he was scheduled to fly the next morning. The men rose at 4 a.m., showered, shaved and retrieved their briefcases as they headed for coffee. Maps lined the wall, an instructor explained the flight and destination, and mechanics hurried to get the plane ready for take-off. With bombs loaded, Lt. Vantrease flew as bombardier on his first mission. Later the 6-foot-1-inch, tall blond, with a distinct Southern accent, flew as navigator.  

“I flew with Lt. Jewell Maxwell on his plane, ‘Good to the Last Drop,’ and we took tremendous flak from the Germans. We returned to base and I counted 53 holes.” After a short pause, Mr. Vantrease commented, “I decided never to count again.” 

“On Dec. 6, 1944, we had a mission to bomb the industrial section of Muenstereifel, Germany. As I climbed aboard, I checked my flight suit for the silk map.” Mr. Vantrease momentarily left the room to retrieve a souvenir and returned holding fabric resembling a scarf.  

“I always tucked my escape map in the left cargo pocket of my flight suit,” the veteran pilot explained, as he pointed out cities in France, Belgium and Germany, “just in case I needed it.”  

Thank goodness, he never did. 

Calmly, Mr. Vantrease continued, “We were in enemy territory and immediately received clusters of flak from bristling German 88’s; we ran into thick cumulus clouds and the temperature registered at 5 degrees F. After two unsuccessful runs over Muenstereifel, we were released by the Group leader to bomb targets of opportunity.”

Powerfully, Mr. Vantrease described the new target: “I consulted my charts and identified the next site as Muenster, dead center between Hanover and Hamburg. The bombardier adjusted his eye piece, lined up the drop and the mighty B-26 shook from the assault blast.” After destroying communication sectors, railroads and bridges, a relieved crew returned to the runways of Pontoise, France.

After flying aboard eight different planes and racking up almost 20 missions, he had one more mission in the spring of 1945. Arriving in Belgium, he and the 344th Bomb Group adopted a young Jewish girl at the orphanage there. Yvonne Styner was a petite, 10-year-old with jet black hair and a smile to melt your heart. The nurses made her an American uniform, complete with donated overseas cap. Living in New York, Yvonne never forgot her caregivers and has attended several reunions held by the 344th Marauders.

As World War II ended, Mr. Vantrease was assigned to Frankfurt, Germany facing sights more terrifying than the missions he flew. He viewed Dachau: the gas chambers, ovens and displaced persons who were weakened from starvation, illness, cruelty and despair. The shocking horror was overwhelming; a nightmare Mr. Vantrease recalls to this day.

Being anxious to get home, this young pilot’s thoughts turned toward family and Tennessee. In describing the 1946 reunion with his dad, Mr. Vanrease said, “I gave Dad my flight jacket and he wore that old coat until it frayed to the elbows.”

Good luck followed this young man and on Nov. 20, 1949, Mr. Vantrease married Frances Mae Graves. They’ve been together almost 62 years and the pair feels fortunate to have raised a family, traveled and attended reunions of the 344th Marauders. While touring “Fantasy of Flight” in Florida, the couple had an opportunity to go onboard a Martin B-26 Marauder. 

“While other wives planned shopping trips,” Mr. Vantrease proudly recalled, “Fran said, ‘I’m going in the plane with you’, and she took the co-pilot’s seat.”

Visiting with former World War II Pilot Edgar Leon Vantrease was a unique experience. He and Fran made me feel welcome as they shared stories and souvenirs of the war in Europe. One of Mr. Vantrease’s most treasured possessions, the colorful silk escape map of Europe, is permanently creased and magically folds into place every time. It holds indelible memories of engines roaring, pilot and crew taking to the skies, formation perfect, and silent prayers lifted up for a safe return to base.

It was an honor and privilege to record Lt. Vantrease’s history of service and as Memorial Day draws closer, please take this opportunity to acknowledge those who fought for freedom and gave the ultimate sacrifice. May God bless our great nation.

Editor’s Note: Linda Beth Evins has interviewed and written about a number of veterans for The Wilson Post since the newspaper began publication in June 2003.

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