By Senior Airman Shane S. Karp, 177th Fighter Wing
/ Published December 08, 2015
ATLANTIC CITY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.J. -- 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 836th Bomb Squadron, 487th Bomb Group, is boarding his B-17 Flying Fortress, about to take part in mission number 760 -- the 8th Air Force's largest single mission of the war.
Vern, as he is known by his family, was not originally meant to be part of that mission, but as the story is told, he gave one of his enlisted members the day off for Christmas Eve, and manned the tail gun, said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. James McCloskey.
Vern was McCloskey's great uncle, and Christmas Eve 1944 would be the last mission 1st Lt. Cuno Vernal Becker would be a part of.
The crew of nine was shot down that day over Aywaille, Belgium. Seven of the nine were killed in action; two survived.
Flash forward more than 70 years later, and the New Jersey Air National Guard's 177th Fighter Wing is taking part in a two-week temporary duty 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 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 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.
"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 Frederic Winkin, a resident of Aywaille, and the curator of the museum.
"He said he knew exactly what I was talking about. 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," McCloskey said.
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, where 1st Lt. Cuno Vernal Becker's B-17 came down more than 70 years prior.
Directly after, the group was taken to the home of the older Belgian who was at the crash site in 1944, Gaston Mean.
Mean, accompanied by his wife, invited the group inside, sat them down, and pulled out a hand-written letter.
A pin drop could be heard in the living room of this long-standing Belgian home, as 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. 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 said.
McCloskey then informed Mean of something that had been unknown to him for more than 70 years. Becker tragically died two days later from injuries sustained in the crash, at an allied hospital in Belgium. At this point, it had come full circle for both Mean, and McCloskey.
"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."
Chief McCloskey may not have been part of his great uncle's mission number 760, but after the experience in Aywaille, Belgium, he got as close to that crew as any man today possibly could.