NEWPORT, Minn. (WCCO) – Summer is a time for reunions, even for those that have been in the making for 69 years.
“Sixteen years ago, I never knew Jerry was on that plane,” said 93-year-old Bob Gross, a former navigator aboard a B-24 Liberator.
Gross and his wife, Cynthia, arrived on a flight from Connecticut to fulfill a promise Gross made years ago. He wanted to pay tribute to his crew members by meeting their relatives and answering questions.
“We just didn’t know, we didn’t know….and thought everybody on board that plane was killed,” said Jim Johnson, the nephew of one of those who flew aboard the bomber Misery Agent.
It was D-day, June 6, 1944. All nine of Gross’s crewmates were killed when their B-24 bomber crashed while returning to a base in England after a bombing run over France.
Gross survived because just prior to the D-day mission he and other navigators were told they weren’t needed. With more than 4,000 planes in the air that day, pilots were simply told to follow the group.
At Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Gross was taken to the grave of gunner Jerome Helget. That’s where Gross would place his final wreath, a simple tribute that instantly caused his aging eyes to well with tears, all these many years later.
Gross spent years tracking down relatives of his lost crew mates. It was in Newport where he would meet the last. Jerry Helget’s sister, Imogene, was only 14-years-old when her brother volunteered for the D-day flight.
To this day, she recalls the sight of her parents walking up the driveway, crying when they broke the news that Jerry had been killed in action.
For Imogene and her family, questions about what happened and why her brother was aboard for the flight have lingered for decades. Gross suspects that Jerry, a ground crew member, simply volunteered for the mission.
“This is a lot, because…it’s something you live with all your life,” Imogene Jagow said.
Here in Newport, in a shaded backyard, came a reunion of fates as this precious link to a loved one pored over memories and faded photos.
At 93, Gross knows that time is precious if he’s to preserve these little bits of history.
“You can’t forget,” he said. “And like my wife said, this is the end of the story.”