Missing World War II air­man’s let­ters have spo­ken for him for years

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Chris­tine Hauser NEW YORK TIMES

For nearly a decade, hun­dreds of let­ters that Staff Sgt. Vin­cent J. Rogers Jr. wrote home have been dis­played at a Cal­i­for­nia mu­seum, bear­ing wit­ness to the trans­for­ma­tion of a Buf­falo area teenager into a World War II ra­dio oper­a­tor de­ployed in the Pa­cific.

Scrawled with folksy good hu­mor, the let­ters have been all that was known of Rogers since Jan. 21, 1944, when the bomber he was on crashed af­ter take­off from Tarawa Atoll.

But that changed this week. On Mon­day, the Pen­tagon said that the re­mains of Rogers had been re­cov­ered, and iden­ti­fied in March. Next of kin are being no­ti­fied and plans for a burial will be made, said the unit re­spon­si­ble for lo­cat­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing the bod­ies of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

Rogers was in the Army Air Forces, as a ra­dio oper­a­tor sta­tioned at Hawkins Field in the atoll on Gil­bert Is­lands, when the B-24J bomber he was in crashed shortly af­ter take­off on a night bomb­ing mis­sion, the an­nounce­ment said. He was 21.

His next of kin had not been fully briefed on the de­tails of the re­cov­ery process, Sgt. First Class Kris­ten Duus, a spokes­woman for the De­fense POW/ MIA Ac­count­ing Agency, said Thurs­day.

“He is not the first ser­vice­man from the air­craft to be iden­ti­fied,” Duus said. “There were 10 on board his air­craft, and three sur­vived.”

While the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Rogers’ re­mains were the fi­nal chap­ter in the tale of his short life, his story has been told in his own hand over the years, even though he was missing.

More than 230 let­ters writ­ten by Rogers be­tween 1942 and 1944 have been on dis­play at the March Field Air Mu­seum in River­side, Calif., since 2010. Like many let­ters from wartime sol­diers, they present un­guarded snap­shots of his­tory, and a first­hand look at the in­ner life of a teenage civil­ian from Sny­der, a sub­urb of Buf­falo, as he was molded into a mil­i­tary man.

Spon­ta­neous and truth­ful, they were meant for the pri­vate eyes of those close to him. But when un­folded for a pub­lic of strangers, the doc­u­ments are a re­minder of how war is con­structed on the lives of civil­ians to whom the small things count the most.

“He just wants to do his part and he wants to go back to his life,” Jeff Houli­han, the mu­seum di­rec­tor, said Wed­nes­day. “He is ev­ery man.”

Rogers’ re­mains were re­cov­ered in 2017 in part­ner­ship with His­tory Flight, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Vir­ginia, the Pen­tagon an­nounce­ment said.

Mark Noah, His­tory Flight’s founder, told the As­so­ci­ated Press Tues­day that Rogers was the 100th per­son listed as missing in ac­tion on Tarawa who was iden­ti­fied.

The writ­ten record of Rogers’ life was found be­fore he was. The mu­seum en­cour­ages fam­i­lies to go through their per­sonal ma­te­ri­als and scrap­books for mil­i­tary ar­ti­facts that have pos­si­bly been for­got­ten. And that was how the let­ters from Rogers ar­rived at the mu­seum, in a card­board box dropped off by an anony­mous rel­a­tive, Houli­han said.

“Some guy walked in through the front door,” he said. “He had been clean­ing out a stor­age con­tainer.”

In 2010, Houli­han said he de­cided to cre­ate a dis­play of the let­ters with a record­ing of a nar­ra­tor read­ing them. Vis­i­tors walk among the col­umns, read the let­ters, and lis­ten. “What Vin­cent does for us is he teaches that the cost of war is not in money, and it is not in ma­te­rial,” he said. “It is in peo­ple.”

Rogers writes of the hot Texas weather dur­ing train­ing, of missing the fam­ily dog, of snow and hockey, of slow mail ser­vice and an aching wis­dom tooth. In later let­ters, he sug­gests a dis­dain for and will­ing­ness to fight the Ja­panese and Ger­mans.

“Dear folks,” he wrote on Oct. 22, 1942, shortly af­ter his in­duc­tion. “Ev­ery­thing is hunky dorey. Boy, they re­ally keep you hop­pin’. Don’t know when I will be shipped out. Soon, I hope.”

With earnest good na­ture, Rogers tells his par­ents of being given a “choice” to be trained as a ra­dio oper­a­tor, a para­chute rig­ger or a welder – all trades that he jokes he knows noth­ing about.

On April 27, 1943, from Har­lin­gen Army Gun­nery School in Texas, he was joy­ful about the air-con­di­tioned bar­racks and re­lieved he had passed his phys­i­cal.

Three months later, in July 1943, he re­ferred to him­self as a “slap-happy sol­dier” with some bad news. Writ­ing from the la­trine, the only place where lights were still on in the bar­racks, he said a few of his com­rades had been killed in crashes. “They didn’t have a chance,” he wrote. They were ex­pect­ing the “du­bi­ous honor” of a visit­ing gen­eral, he wrote.

On Nov. 8, 1943, by then in Tarawa, Rogers asks about his par­ents’ new house, and said he was bit­ten up by mos­qui­toes dur­ing night­time guard duty. He said he had been put in a gun­ner post, and ob­served that the Ja­panese were not as “sui­ci­dal as they’d like you to be­lieve. They like life just like you or I.”

On a fi­nal let­ter home, dated Jan. 16, 1944, Rogers wrote to his par­ents again.

“Just to let you know I’m still here, wish­ing I was back in the States,” he wrote. “Gosh, I sure would give a lotta money to be able to step foot in Buf­falo again. I guess it won’t be too much longer be­fore I’m do­ing just that – I hope, I hope.”

But it would not be. On Jan. 21, 1944, Rogers was killed in ac­tion.

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