ATLANTIC CITY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.J., Jan. 20, 2016 —
The date is Dec. 24, 1944, in the midst of World War II, and while most Americans are at home preparing for a Christmas with their families, 1st Lt. Cuno Vernal Becker, an armament officer with the Army Air Force's 836th Bomb Squadron is boarding his B-17 Flying Fortress to take part in mission No. 760 -- one of the largest air missions of the war.
Vern, as he was known by his family, was not originally meant to be part of that mission. But, as Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James McCloskey, Becker's great nephew, has heard the story told, Vern gave one of his enlisted members the day off for Christmas Eve and decided to man the tail gun.
It would be the last mission of Becker's life. The crew of nine was shot down that day over Aywaille, Belgium. Seven of the nine were killed in action. Two survived.
More than 70 years later, the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing is taking part in a two-week temporary duty assignment on Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. During some down time, part of the group took off to explore Europe.
"When we were driving back from Amsterdam, we happened to drive through Belgium," McCloskey said. "As soon as we passed through Belgium, I thought about my grandmother, who passed last year. She would always tell stories about Vern. It's hard for me to be in Germany, or anywhere in Europe, and not think about my great uncle and the pictures of the war."
McCloskey said he took this opportunity to dive deeper into the history of his family, and he began to further research the events that unfolded on Christmas Eve, 1944.
"I immediately texted my dad to see if he could give me more info about Uncle Vern, and he sent me info about him and the town he went down in," McCloskey said. "I was able to narrow it down to the hamlet of Septroux in Aywaille, Belgium."
McCloskey said did not stop there -- he took to the streets of Aywaille, asking the elder locals if they could recall anything from that day. The survey was unsuccessful, he said.
'A Tiny Museum'
"After we came back that day, I felt like I could have made a better effort to find out more," McCloskey said. "I decided to do some Internet searching and found a tiny museum in Aywaille dedicated to World War II called 40-45 Memories."
This led the chief to Frédéric Winkin, he said, a resident of Aywaille and the curator of the museum.
"He said he knew exactly what I was talking about," McCloskey said. "Not only that, but he knew the exact location by the river where the main fuselage came down, as well as an idea of where my uncle came down in the tail section. From there, we set a date to meet up."
Now for most, this alone is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity already, but Winkin had something else planned for the chief.
"A couple days later, Frédéric emailed me to say that he had one more surprise for me. He had found the man who pulled my uncle out of that plane, 70 years ago, and that he was willing to meet with me," McCloskey said. "Honestly, that made me nervous. I, a great nephew of Vern, was going to represent my whole family and meet this man."
So on Aug. 12, 2015, McCloskey, accompanied by Winkin and two 177th FW members, went to the exact location on the banks of the Ambleve River near Aywaille, Becker's B-17 came down more than 70 years prior.
Directly after, the group was taken to the home of Gaston Mean, the older Belgian who was at the crash site in 1944.
Mean, accompanied by his wife, invited the group inside, sat them down, and pulled out a hand-written letter. McCloskey said all eyes were focused on the older man while he precisely detailed what took place that day, in classic French dialect, as Winkin translated for the group.
"Since Mr. Mean was the one who found my uncle, he obviously had an emotional bond with him," McCloskey said. "He never knew what happened to my uncle after that day. He wondered if he survived or died; he wondered if he went on to have a life in America."
McCloskey then informed Mean of something that had been unknown to him for more than 70 years. Becker tragically died two days later at an allied hospital in Belgium, from injuries sustained in the crash.
"I can't put into words how much all of this meant to my family," McCloskey said. "Everyone is fascinated and touched. I get calls from different family members all the time now who want to hear the story. I wish I could tell them more. I wish they were all in that town and that living room with me."