The last and shortest day of Charles Daman’s life likely began just as it did for Cameron Murchison and other Allied airmen during the waning days of World War II.
Daman, who graduated from Plummer High School in 1941, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943. He was assigned to the 8th Air Force 448th Bombardment Group, which trained at Boise’s Gowan Field, and served as the nose gunner in a B-24 Liberator nicknamed “Red Bow.”
That’s where the 21-year-old sergeant was the morning of April 4, 1945: sitting in his turret at the front of the aircraft, watching the future rush toward him.
Just a few hours later, Daman’s plane was shot down east of Hamburg. A famous photo taken by Harold Dorfman, a navigator in a nearby bomber, shows Red Bow spinning out of control shortly after it was blown in half by an air-to-air missile from a German fighter.
Radio operator Charles Cupp was able to parachute safely to the ground. The other nine crewmen, including Sgt. Daman, all died in the crash. Their bodies weren’t recovered.
“My granddad didn’t want him to join the Army,” recalled Wilber Tanner, whose mother, Bernece, was Daman’s sister. “But he did anyway. It upset the whole family.”
Tanner, who now lives in Moscow, grew up in South Dakota. His folks didn’t move to Idaho until 1946, so he never met his Uncle Charles. He was 12 years old when Red Bow went down.
As he remembers it, the family received a telegram saying Daman was “missing in action or lost at sea.” The “or” was left out, though, so they always assumed his plane went down in the North Sea — that he was missing and lost at sea.
Tanner said there was never any expectation that Daman’s body would be found. That didn’t change until last year, when he received a surprise phone call saying his uncle’s remains had been identified.
“It is simply amazing that they did this,” he said.
In this case, “they” is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to “provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.”
The agency has a 2018 budget of $146 million and employs more than 500 people. They conduct recovery operations around the world, scouring old war zones in an effort to locate and identify some of the roughly 82,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen who are still listed as missing in action from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
“We estimate that about 26,000 are potentially recoverable,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, who has worked for the agency for three years.
Many of the missing were lost at sea, she said, where the agency doesn’t have the capability to do deep-water recoveries. However, it can do shallow-water dives, as well as excavations on land. The recovery operations are essentially treated like archaeological digs, complete with soil screening and artifact identification.
“We have a phenomenal group of historians and analysts who do research,” Duus said. “They’ll look at witness accounts and historical reports, trying to identify crash sites and places where remains can be recovered.”
In fiscal 2017, the agency accounted for 183 missing personnel, including 10 Vietnam War veterans, 40 from the Korean War and 131 from World War II. Through the first nine months of fiscal 2018, another 118 have been identified.
“We’re definitely making strides bringing closure to families,” Duus said.
That proved to be the case with Sgt. Daman. He was laid to rest Tuesday at Coeur d’Alene Memorial Gardens, with full military honors. More than 100 family and friends were in attendance, including 18 of his 19 surviving nieces and nephews.
“Grandma always swore, ‘til the day she died, that Charles was going to walk in the kitchen door some day,” Tanner said. “She never gave up hope.”
At Tanner’s request, Daman’s casket was placed in the same grave as his mother’s. After 73 years, he finally came home.
Lives cut short
By the time Daman and Red Bow arrived in England in September of ‘44, the Allies had the upper hand in the war.
On almost a daily basis, B-17 and B-24 bombers with the 8th Air Force were flying into battle, accompanied by hundreds of fighter planes. Their targets ranged from railroads and shipyards to oil refineries, manufacturing centers, ordnance depots and V-1 rocket sites.
Nearly 160,000 British and American airmen lost their lives in this strategic bombing campaign; more than 20,000 bombers were destroyed, along with 18,000 fighters.
The men of Red Bow served as a replacement crew in the 448th Bombardment Group, which was stationed at Seething Airfield in Norwich, East Anglia.
In the nine months prior to their arrival, the 448th had lost 79 bombers — a loss rate of at least 110 percent, and possibly as high as 165 percent. According to the 8th Air Force Historical Society, another 18 planes were shot down before Germany surrendered.
On April 4, 1945, “the Mighty Eighth” sent a wave of 1,431 bombers toward Germany, targeting a series of airfields and shipyards. They were accompanied by 866 fighters. Ten bombers and four fighters were lost on the mission; more than 100 other aircraft were damaged.
Red Bow was among a group of 438 B-24s tasked with bombing three airfields in northern Germany. The bases were home to most of the enemy’s remaining Messerschmitt Me 262 fighters — the first operational jet fighter in the world. The planes were faster than anything the Allies had and were deadly at shooting down bombers. The best way to negate their speed advantage was to destroy the concrete runways they needed to take off.
“They were faster than anything I’d ever seen,” wrote Ken Jones, a B-24 pilot with the 389th Bombardment Group, in a story about the April 4 mission called “Paralyzed with Fear.”
“I saw an Me 262 coming at us from 9 o’clock level and circling to our rear,” he said. “The clock stopped ticking, and we braced for the attack. This twin-jet ‘bomber destroyer’ can punch out 96 pounds of 30 mm cannon shells in one three-second burst.”
Cameron Murchison, a B-24 co-pilot in the 453rd Bombardment Group, also described the April 4 mission in his story, “Our Longest Day.”
“A number of 262s came up on the way to our (bombing run initiation point),” he wrote. “They hid in the high broken clouds over the bomb string and screamed down unnoticed until they were very close. They also had the advantage - unknown at the time - of having the most experienced fighter pilots the world had ever seen, ranging from 100 to 300 kills per pilot.”
Milton Jones, a nose gunner in the 389th, recalled exchanging gunfire with a 262 during the April 4 mission.
“I could see his cannon fire glint in the sun as it passed just above our aircraft,” he wrote in the story “We Were Something Else.”
During his first combat mission in November of ‘44, Jones watched helplessly as the B-24 immediately in front of his plane was hit by flak and lost a wing.
“No amount of language can possibly convey the fright and terror I felt,” he wrote. “I came here to be shot out of the sky and fall 22,000 feet in order to die? I would have exchanged it all for an infantry rifle on the spot.”
Charles Cupp, the only survivor among the Red Bow crew, told investigators that the plane was attacked somewhere east of Hamburg, just after its bomb bay doors opened.
A copy of the investigative report, which was provided to Tanner, said the Red Bow went into an immediate dive. Cupp recalled “bouncing around the flight deck like a rubber ball” before he found his parachute and bailed out at about 800 feet.
He heard an enormous bang just as his chute opened - believed to be Red Bow exploding as it hit the ground. He landed in Ludwigslust, a town of about 11,000 people located midway between Hamburg and Berlin, and was immediately captured. The next day, German officials told him they’d found and buried eight crewmen, and showed him their personal effects.
Based on Cupp’s information, Daman was officially declared killed in action on Sept. 18, 1945. His parents found out Sept. 25, on what would have been their son’s 22nd birthday.
Three weeks after the April 4 mission, the 448th suspended combat operations; Germany surrendered two weeks after that. For Cupp, the war was over. For Sgt. Daman and other members of the Red Bow crew, the long road home was just beginning.
Missing no more
Ludwigslust got its start in the early 1700s as a hunting camp for Prince Ludwig of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.
The prince enjoyed the retreat so much he named it Ludwigslust, or “Ludwig’s pleasure.” He subsequently built a major castle there, completing it in 1776.
The town is located near the Elbe River, in the area that was administered by the Soviet Union after the war and that later became East Germany. It was about 20 miles inside the Iron Curtain.
Red Bow crashed in a field near the castle. Based on information from Cupp, a group of Army investigators - accompanied by a Soviet escort - visited the town in August 1948. According to the report given to Tanner, they “observed a large crater filled with water, showing where the bombs had exploded.” They also interviewed local residents, hoping to learn where the crewmen had been buried, and made a sketch showing the crater’s location with respect to the castle.
However, because of the “deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union,” the report said, “it became increasingly difficult to gain access to areas in East Germany for recovery operations.” As a result, the case was placed on the deferred search roster.
That’s where it stayed until 2006, when analysts with the POW/MIA Accounting Agency pulled the case for review. A team visited the area the following year. Using the 1948 sketch, they located the crash site and several bits of aircraft wreckage.
After securing permission from authorities and the landowner, recovery teams excavated the site in 2014 and ‘15. They searched 3.4 million square feet with metal detectors, then focused on an area measuring about 50 by 200 feet in size.
By digging down several inches and sifting the soil, they found a few bone fragments, along with various items used by U.S. military personnel during WWII, such as a flashlight and watch. They also excavated a small pile of shredded aircraft parts.
DNA testing on the bone fragments was completed last year. A small piece of cranium matched DNA taken from Daman’s sister, Maxine Mumau - who died last year before learning for sure that her brother had been found. A small bit of leg bone was identified as Lt. Robert Mains, the 27-year-old pilot of Red Bow.
Mains was buried in New York last year. According to his obituary, he held his newborn daughter in his arms a single time before flying off to war. On Dec. 2, 73 years after their last meeting, she was able to welcome her father home and lay him to rest.
According to the POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 72,000 WWII personnel are still missing, together with about 7,700 from the Korean War and 1,597 from Vietnam.
Beverly Tanner, Wilber’s wife, said the agency’s ongoing recovery efforts reflect America’s commitment to those missing men and women, and to their families.
“You always hear them say no one will be left behind,” she said. “You think that means on the battlefield, but they really mean never. They never give up hope. They’re still looking for those boys, trying to bring them home.”