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