My great-grandfather Vernon Failer went missing after his plane was shot down during WWII.
Feb. 24, 1942, two days before my grandma’s fifth birthday, her 36-year-old father is on an airplane patrol mission as a radioman with the U.S. Navy over the Makassar Straits in Indonesia.
Enemy transports and a surfaced submarine are in the harbor, they report. The crew is instructed to drop a couple bombs on the enemy but they are attacked. Somehow they manage to shake off the attack and successfully bomb the enemy’s fleet. Mission accomplished.
They turn to go back to their base and make it a few hundred miles before they report a second attack.
This time there is no shaking it. The plane goes down, swallowed up by the ocean. They never found the wreckage or the bodies of the eight crew members — including my great-grandfather Vernon Failer.
I remember seeing his picture when I was younger and thinking he looked just like my Uncle Matthew. I knew he was killed in WWII but I didn’t know the details. Until this week, I didn’t know my great-grandmother, Marion Gillespie, waited more than three years to get a letter from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.
The letter is dated Dec. 28, 1945. My great-grandmother and her two young daughters were living on Bell Road near McDonnell Creek. In the letter, Forrestal recounts the plane attack and says since no further information has been received concerning Vernon Failer or the missing aircraft, he must conclude their husband and father is dead.
“It is hoped that you may find comfort in the thought that your husband gave his life for his country, upholding the highest traditions of the Navy,” Forrestal writes.
I have no idea if that was any comfort at all to my great-grandma. She never spoke of it that I remember.
This week I went to my mom’s house to help her with a few things and was excited to hear she’d learned more about great-grandpa’s life, thanks to the research efforts of my grandma, Joan Ritchie, who organized the information in several large three-ring binders.
I love history. I’ve always been a WWII junkie. So imagine my astonishment when my mom, Susie Winters, reached into an envelope and pulled out several medals, including a Purple Heart.
My grandma just got it in the mail last week. I’m not sure what took so long, but I know I’ve never felt more proud of my family and their service to our country. It makes me so glad to see my great-grandpa was recognized for making the ultimate sacrifice.
My Uncle Matthew Ritchie, the one who looks like great-grandpa, is serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. My Uncle Walter Ritchie just retired from the U.S. Navy after 35 years and serving in both Gulf wars.
Walter went to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial last year, where 17,206 soldiers are buried and the names of 36,282 missing are inscribed in limestone walls. He found great-grandpa’s name at the top of one of the walls.
This morning, Walter told me great-grandpa’s name is also inscribed in a memorial at Veteran’s Park in Port Angeles. I’ve been to that park a dozen times and somehow did not know that. By the time I finish work tonight it will be too dark to see the names etched in the stone at the park. But first thing tomorrow, I’m going to go see it.
Happy Veterans Day to all who have served, are serving and will serve our country. We can never thank you enough.