The Crew — Dec. 1, 1943
By Eileen P. Duggan
On Dec. 1, 1943, my father didn’t die. But the rest of his B-17 bomber crew did. And he spent the rest of his life trying to fulfill the purpose for which he was spared.
The crew of Mizpah II, officially aircraft No. 229794, of the 322nd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group (known as the Ragged Irregulars), 8th Air Force, was based in Bassingbourne, England, during World War II. 1st Lt. Les Duggan Jr., my dad, was the co-pilot of the crew with whom he had trained in Washington state and Oregon. As the end of 1943 drew near, the 322nd was training Lt. Harry Hollinger to pilot his own crew. His trial run would be a combat mission to Germany with Mizpah II and other aircraft. On Dec. 1, Lt. Duggan sat out so Hollinger could fly.
The mission target was Leverkusen, Germany, but over Vossenack, the formation of bombers and fighters met enemy fire. The Mizpah II was one of five planes that were lost that day at Vossenack, three of them with the 322nd Squadron.
It was the thick of WWII, and the Western Allies were making bombing runs over Germany, in efforts to put an end to the Nazi regime’s numerous grave misdeeds. On Dec. 1, 1943, the 91st Bomb Group sent three squadrons including 28 aircraft to assist in a bombing raid of a chemical works plant at Leverkusen, then were diverted because of cloud cover to a secondary target at Solingen. The Mizpah II was one of those bombers. Although the crew referred to their plane as Mizpah II, in honor of a previous Mizpah that ditched at Stuttgart three months earlier, the 91st labeled it as a no-name B-17G, serial No. 229794. The plane was piloted that day by Leonard (Andy) Anderson and trainee co-pilot Hollinger.
Also on the mission was the Wheel ’N Deal, co-piloted by 2nd Lt. Robert Dickson, who happened to be Hollinger’s best friend. Incidentally, Dickson also was a substitute pilot flying with a crew not usually his own. While forming up over England, Dickson’s and Hollinger’s planes were mixed up in the planned formation, when another bomber had to abort from the mission.
When they neared the target, flying at about 26,000 feet, the American B-17 bombers attracted 40 to 50 German Luftwaffe Focke-Wulfs on their tail. For about 20 minutes from 1140 and 1200 hours, the Flying Fortresses had no fighter escort. During this period, Dickson’s plane was damaged and dropped back in the formation. A second attack destroyed the batteries, knocking out the two turrets. After his plane was hit a third time, Dickson and all but one of his crew bailed out. Landing in Germany, the Wheel ’N Dealers were captured and held in a German prison of war camp for the duration of the war. Tail gunner William Roller was hit and went down with the plane into the Rhine River.
Before bailing, Dickson had seen the wing of his friend Hollinger’s plane get shot off by German fighters halfway between Koblenz and Cologne, sending the Mizpah II spinning down out of control. No parachutes came out.
Because the two planes had switched places in the formation, other crews on the mission reported that it was Dickson’s plane that spun out of control and went down with no chutes deployed. It was the Mizpah II crew that was presumed to have bailed out. They were declared Missing in Action; Dickson and his crew were presumed Killed in Action.
It took the Red Cross almost a year to notify Dickson’s family that he was still alive in a POW camp.
Meanwhile, the families of the Mizpah II crew held onto hope that their men were just missing. Among the devastated and uncertain was the crew’s original co-pilot, Lt. Duggan, who, but for an orientation schedule, would have been in Hollinger’s seat when A/C 794 crashed in German territory.
The crew of Mizpah II — officially A/C LG-O #229794 — were:
Pilot — 2nd Lt. Leonard F. (Andy) Anderson (age 23, Skagit County, Washington)
Co-pilot — 2nd Lt. Harry Hollinger (23, Bonne Terre, Missouri)
Navigator — 2nd Lt. Steve Domladovac Jr. (21, Struthers, Ohio)
Radio Operator — Staff Sgt. Robert L. Pendergast (31, Syracuse, New York)
Bombardier — 2nd Lt. Clinton V. Copeland (21, Lockhart, Texas)
Ball Turret — Sgt. Albert V. Rose (29, Providence, Rhode Island)
Top Turret/Engineer — Staff Sgt. Everett N. Ross Jr. (22, Buffalo, New York)
Waist Gunner — Sgt. Wayne Houser (22, Rockwall County, Texas)
Waist Gunner 2 — Sgt. Joseph F. Campbell (23, Tarkio, Missouri)
Tail Gunner — Sgt. Charles Shelley (28, Tulsa, Oklahoma)
Lt. Duggan was rather a prolific writer of letters to home. The tenor of his letters before Dec. 1, 1943 was that of a young man writing about girls, planes and popular singers, asking dad to send spending money, complaining about the army. He wrote nothing about his missions, and his letters were never redacted or censored. When his crew was lost, he was one month and 11 days shy of 22. The tone of his letters became more serious. He didn’t mention the incident directly in his extant letters, but it’s apparent that the folks back home knew about it somehow.
Two weeks after the mission, Duggan asked his parents to write to the mother of bombardier Clint Copeland, known as “Chug,” of Lockhart, Texas, to tell her that he had “every reason to believe that he is safe. He was a very good buddy of mine as were all the boys in the crew. I only wish that I would have been with them that day. Don’t think I’m foolish, but that’s the way I feel.”
As it turned out, he wrote to the Copelands himself, trying to walk the line between hope and false hope. After describing the eyewitness reports, he wrote, “I don’t know what happened after that and I don’t want to raise any false hopes. It’s entirely possible that they may have all bailed out or even landed in enemy territory.”
In September 1944, back in the States, Harry Hollinger’s wife visited Les Duggan while he was on leave in St. Louis. She still had not received a definitive answer about her husband and was eager for information. She was disappointed.
“I found out absolutely nothing from Les,” Erma Lee Hollinger wrote to Ann Domladovac, one of navigator Steve Domladovac’s three sisters. “He either didn’t know anything at all (no more than I did) or he chose to convey that impression, for good reasons, I am sure. Everything he said was rather confused and vague, and I just had to come to my own conclusions from his reactions. He apparently was greatly upset over losing the crew, and seemed to be an especial friend and pal of Copeland’s. He also remarked what a great guy Steve was. … He may only have a strong hunch where they are, but he definitely wasn’t encouraging in the least, and on the other hand, he couldn’t be said to be discouraging. I really gained nothing by seeing him.” She wrote that if they didn’t hear anything at the end of 12 months, the War Department would declare the airmen officially KIA.
By that time, Germany had reported the deaths of four of the crew and that they had been buried in Vossenack. Mrs. Hollinger and Les Duggan both were mystified as to why Germany would report only four, leaving the fate of the other six unknown.
But Duggan did know something about Harry Hollinger, another Missourian whom he had never met. Duggan had written home in March that someone at base had heard from Hollinger as a POW. By May 5, the story on Hollinger was muddier, as his original co-pilot who had reported unofficially that he was a POW, had since gone missing himself. On May 28, Duggan wrote his family that he had no official news of Hollinger and Copeland, whose wife and mother, respectively, had written him. “I just didn’t know what to tell them,” he wrote. “The word about Hollinger is unofficial and the fellow who told me has since gone down,” he wrote.
Eventually the Mizpah II airmen were declared killed in action. Hearts were broken; the war dragged on.
Because of the loss of his crew, Duggan, by his own account, floundered around the base in Bassingbourn for several months, flying occasionally until he was assigned to a new crew on the Texas Chubby. After finishing his tour of duty in May 1944 with a total of 29 missions, he spent three more months in England and Ireland with an Air Transport Group, ferrying airplane parts and VIPs, such as bandleader Major Glenn Miller, around the British Isles. Shortly before D-Day, June 6, 1944, he flew a VIP general from an allied country to a secret rendezvous with General James Doolittle in a remote part of Wales.
In May 1945, the fighting in Europe ended, and with Japan’s surrender in August, the war was over. The survivors who went home and the families of those who didn’t all started new lives, trying to put the war behind them.
Duggan returned to his home town, Richmond Heights, Missouri, just over the western border of St. Louis. He served in the new Air Force Reserves for several years while attending college and law school at Saint Louis University. In 1947, he married Frances Burke, a newly minted piano teacher and graduate of St. Louis Institute of Music. His older
brother, Joe, a B-29 radio operator who had received a Purple Heart for an injury in a bombing mission over Tokyo, married another SLIM piano teacher, Frances’s friend Jean Stahl. Les and Joe’s oldest brother, Ed, married his longtime love, Eugenia Bernhard, after surviving the war and the Battle of the Bulge as a quartermaster with the 357th Infantry, serving in the Rhineland, Ardennes, Central
Europe, Normandy and Northern France. All three brothers married that same summer, as did one of their sisters, Tess, and commenced getting to work, raising families, populating the suburbs and helping lead the country into prosperity, along with many of the WWII veterans, the “Greatest Generation.”
Les Duggan went on to accomplish many achievements. He married and raised five children and took to the stage as an amateur thespian and singer. He was a lawyer, mostly in private practice, often taking cases other lawyers wouldn’t for clients who couldn’t pay him. He got involved in politics, becoming the mayor of a little-known northern St. Louis suburb called Ferguson. He ran for various other offices, including state representative, prosecutor and even governor, often as an outside-chance candidate, just to make sure the people had a choice. In the late 1960s, he joined a new law partner in the booming town of O’Fallon, Missouri, in St. Charles County, just west of St. Louis County. After practicing in St. Charles County for some 25 years, he was elected a Circuit Court judge and served a six-year term.
He lived a life of strong principles, a life his crew could not.
The Memories Resurface
The tale of Dec. 1, 1943 was unknown to our family until 1995, when he was contacted by Steve Domladovac’s nephew, Rick Senffner. Although Dad had never told the story to our mother or any of us kids, it apparently was never far from his consciousness.
More than 50 years later, he recalled in painstaking detail in a letter to Rick Senffner all the members of the crew. Senffner had located and contacted my dad through the 91st Bomb Group Memorial Association, after finding his name in the letter from Mrs. Hollinger to his aunt, Ann Domladovac. Senffner’s mother, Frances, was the youngest of the sisters, three years younger than Steve, a National Honor Society student who was talented in math, algebra and calculus. He aspired to be a pilot, but he scored high in math on his officer training test, so he was sent to navigator training. He was 21 when he died. His nephew became a pilot himself, with a special interest in WWII-era planes, the B-17 in particular. A member of the Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona in Mesa, Senffner honors his uncle’s memory and service by being part of the flight crew of a vintage, fully restored B-17 called Sentimental Journey around the country for air shows and tours.
“I am ashamed that I have made no effort to contact any family of the crew members before,” Dad wrote to Senffner in July 1995. “It seems that I did make some effort after that tragic incident which changed all of our lives so drastically. I guess it was so traumatic to me that I tried to shut it out of my mind, but that is impossible because I still think about the incident and the members of the crew frequently even now.”
He recalled Steve as a “fine man and a fine navigator. Quiet, but intelligent and competent. He got us from Scott Field across the great Atlantic and hit all of those remote spots on the way in unusual weather.” The crew had trained together in Walla Walla, Washington, and Madras, Oregon, before heading across the country, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom to join the war. An unscheduled stop along the way due to engine trouble allowed radio operator Robert Pendergast to see his family in Syracuse, New York. “The Lord must have taken a hand to him, because it was the last time his family saw him,” Dad wrote.
On Sept. 20, 1943, the day before that trip across the Atlantic, Steve Domladovac wrote to his oldest sister Ann, hoping she could ease his parents’ apprehensions. “This is the moment they’ve been dreading to see,” he wrote. “I think my chances are very good of coming back. I’ll need a lot of luck and prayers, will power and guts in the next few months. I hope I will have all of those requisites. It’s awful hard to write a letter before going over. I’ve got a lot to say but it just won’t come out. Tell Mom and Dad that I will promise to do my best for them. I want them to be proud of me and will try to live up to our name.”
Steve need not have worried about having the right requisites. “We flew only a few combat missions as a crew before that tragic day,” Les Duggan wrote. “I can tell you that Steve did his job well because he had to see that we made it to the rendezvous point where the group formed after takeoff to head for the target. … We flew on the same plane many times and each got shot at at the same times by the same enemy. There is some special relationship that comes from that which is like no other. What could you call a guy who fought for and gave his life for his country but a special hero. I often think about him and the others on that special crew and the many others whom I knew who will never come back. The Lord will have a special place for them, I’m certain. Those of us who did survive must keep this country worthy of their supreme sacrifice.”
“I try not to think about the war and all of the fine men like Steve who died in the prime of their lives,” he continued. “Even though I am convinced that it was a worthy, necessary cause, it seems such a terrible waste of fine young men — and women.”
Then there was the inescapable memory of the coincidence that kept Lt. Duggan from dying along with his crew. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he wrote to Senffner. “I have always felt that He spared me for some purpose. I don’t feel that I have yet justified that Decision; and, of course, have felt some responsibility for Lt. Hollinger’s fate, though I played no part in the decision.”
Three of the crew members who were originally buried in Vossenack, Germany, were
moved later to Ardennes American Cemetery near Liege, Belgium, where more than 7,500 American servicemen are buried. Those include Steve Domladovac, Andy Anderson and Charles Shelley. Senffner laid flowers on their graves in 1999 on behalf of his mother. “Standing among a sea of white crosses, you cannot express the feeling that you feel toward these special heroes,” Senffner wrote on the 91st Bomb Group website. “These young men gave up all of their tomorrows so that we could have our todays.”
Clint Copeland’s body was finally returned to his family in Lockhart, Texas, on June 1, 1949, and he was buried in the Lockhart Cemetery with full military honors. “Chug” had been awarded the Purple Heart posthumously in January 1945, although his precise fate was still unknown at that time, according to the Lockhart Post-Register.
Three of the crew, Everett N. Ross Jr. of Niagara County, New York; Robert L. Pendergast of Syracuse, New York; and Joseph F. Campbell of Tarkio, Missouri, are buried in a common grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Across that same cemetery is a memorial stone for their co-pilot who lived, Lester W. Duggan Jr.
My dad died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) at age 76 in 1998, two days after the remains of Lt. Michael Blassie, a Vietnam-era fighter pilot, were moved from the tomb of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier in Washington’s Arlington Cemetery and reinterred at Jefferson Barracks in his home state of Missouri. It struck me at the time that this Vietnam-era pilot had been about the same age as my dad was when that B-17 went down without him. If Blassie had survived, what might he have achieved? Might he have become a lawyer, too? An airline pilot? An engineer? A teacher? A few years later, I learned that the remains of three of the Mizpah II crew members — from an earlier war that robbed society of the potential of even more young men — rest little more than a baseball’s pitch from Blassie’s grave.
This December, 73 years have passed since that bomber went down. What could those young men have achieved in those years? Do the three buried in St. Louis have any relatives who have visited their grave? My sister and I occasionally visit, leave flowers and other remembrances, and ponder what might have been.
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Letter: Lester W. Duggan Jr. to Rick Senffner, July 2, 1995.
Letters Home: Lester W. Duggan Jr., Captain U. S. Army Air Corps, Oct. 6, 1942 – Sept. 25, 1945.
Service Diary, Lester W. Duggan Jr., Aug. 27, 1942 to Nov. 23, 1945
The Ragged Irregulars: Memoirs of the 91st Bomb Group. 91st Bomb Group Memorial Association. 2002, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, Kentucky.
91st Bomb Group 322nd Squadron Daily Mission Reports for Dec. 1. 1943.
91st Bomb Group website, www.91stbombgroup.com
Dickson, Robert. “A Short Stay at Bassingbourn,” www.91stbombgroup.com
Emails: Rick Senffner to Eileen Duggan, 2011, 2016
Letter: Erma Lee Hollinger to Ann Domladovac, Sept. 12, 1944 (courtesy of Rick Senffner)
Commemorative Air Force Airbase Arizona website: http://www.azcaf.org
- Article: 2nd Lt. Steve Domladovac, http://www.azcaf.org/museum/veterans-legacy/steve-domladovac
- Article: lst Lt. Robert “Bob” Dickson, with excerpt from “Mary Ruth, Memories of Mobile … We Remember,” http://www.azcaf.org/museum/veterans-legacy/robert-dickson/
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Archival Database
World War II Memorial Registry, www.wwiimemorial.com
“A Moment in Time.” Todd A. Blomerth, Lockhart Post-Register, Sept. 19, 2013, citing Post-Register articles from Feb. 8, 1945 and June 1949. http://exposegreengroup.com/images/lockhart/postregister/LPR%20Sept%2019,%202013.pdf
Discharge papers for Edward L. Duggan, Army of the United States, Oct. 22, 1945.
Discharge papers for Joseph D. Duggan, Army of the United States, Nov. 1, 1945.
Many thanks to Rick Senffner of Mesa, Arizona, for providing or leading me to much of this source material and starting the conversation that led to the telling of this human war story.
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I welcome any updated information about any of the members of the crew and their families and friends. Please contact me through the Contact Me form on the About page.