BELFAST, Maine — Even though it has been 66 years, Wilbur Birmingham hasn’t forgotten how it felt the day that he found out his uncle went missing in action after a 1944 bombing raid over Normandy, France.
“It was devastating,” the 71-year-old Birmingham of Rockland recalled Monday.
He and three other nephews of Staff Sgt. Robert Birmingham gathered in the Bangor Daily News’ Belfast bureau to talk about their lost relative. They brought movie-star-handsome photos of him, yellowing articles about his service and letters from him, along with his Purple Heart.
They were eager to talk about their uncle in light of information that recently surfaced providing the family something that has eluded them for more than six decades — a sense of closure about his fate.
“They didn’t know if he was captured, interred, killed in action or what,” said Thomas Birmingham, 58, of Windsor. “Now, the mystery is clearing up. I have a lot of mixed emotion about that. I am sad that his brothers and sisters did not know what truly happened to him and had all these questions. They’ve all passed now. But it is a great relief to us.”
The relief has come to the family unexpectedly after all this time thanks to a couple of organizations. One is a French association dedicated to recovering WWII artifacts and to honoring those who died while liberating France. The other is a small American foundation that tries to locate surviving relatives to attend the memorial ceremonies in France.
Last year, the Association Normande du Souvenir Aerien located the crash site of Birmingham’s B-26 bomber. With money raised from nearby communities, the organization is preparing to erect a monument at the site to honor the crew. The memorial will be marked with the words “Morts pour notre Liberte,” French for “Died for our Freedom.”
The French association also wants as many relatives as possible to attend the ceremony in June or July 2011. But the families can be hard to find — and Birmingham’s family was especially elusive, said Robert Stuard, president of the California-based Lacey-Davis Foundation, which searches for the relatives and can help them attend the dedication ceremony.
“Birmingham has been unbelievably hard to find,” Stuard said earlier this month, adding that he didn’t know where in Waldo County the man had lived or how old he was when he was killed.
But after an article about his quest was published in the Bangor Publishing Co.’s Midcoast Beacon and Weekly publications earlier this month, the surviving Birminghams were found.
“The search is off,” John Birmingham of Old Town said last week. “I would like to thank everybody who has contacted us [regarding the article]. We have happy family members.”
He and several other family members said they are interested in attending the dedication ceremony in France.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the French efforts to honor the fliers.
‘A suicide mission’
The story of the Birmingham family during the years of the Great Depression and World War II is one of hardship and hope, of loss and love, the nephews said.
Robert Birmingham was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up poor in Winterport. His mother died when he was very young, then the family home burned down, and his father kept busy working on the Boston-to-Bangor boats, John Birmingham said.
“The kids really kind of fended for themselves. They were kind of homeless. It was not a lot of fun,” he recalled from family lore. “They were all hard workers and were right in the thrust of the Depression when they were young children. That carried on through their lives.”
Despite their struggles, the siblings were a very tight-knit family, and when one needed help, the others would roll up their sleeves and dig in, he said. Robert, the youngest, was tall, handsome and outgoing, according to the stories.
“He was very well thought of in the lady world,” John Birmingham said with a smile. “I gather that he liked to live life to the fullest.”
Four of the brothers eventually served in WWII. Paul served in the U.S. Navy, Tom was in the Army Air Forces and John was in the U.S. Army. The nephews said that John, who served as a reconnaissance man ahead of the regular troops, even carved his name in Hitler’s conference table in his Eagle’s Nest.
Robert joined the Army Air Forces and left Maine on Christmas Day 1943 to head to the European theater of operations.
He was a turret gunner — “I figured he would enjoy the adrenaline rush,” John Birmingham said — and managed to survive D-Day.
According to family history, by the summer of 1944, Robert Birmingham had flown the required number of missions and had packed his bags to return to Maine.
In his letters, he related few details about the war but asked about his family, especially his father, always asked his siblings to write him back, and consistently expressed how he couldn’t wait to go home.
“There was a sense of loneliness,” said his nephew and namesake, Robert Birmingham of Durham.
He shouldn’t have flown in what turned out to be his final mission on July 28, 1944, his nephews said. But someone didn’t show up and Robert Birmingham volunteered to take his usual spot in the B-26 along with the five other crew members — including Frederick Briggs of Caribou, the pilot — and they set out on a bombing run over a French city.
“A suicide mission is what it was, basically,” Wilbur Birmingham said.
The B-26 collided with a German Focke-Wolf Fw 190 fighter, and all aboard both planes were killed.
Questions about the collision four miles north of Mezidon, France, lingered for years.
Birmingham’s family heard a report that a parachute was seen opening after the collision, and his brother John spent months combing hospitals and cemeteries fruitlessly for traces of his brother.
In 1947, the family learned from the military that Robert Birmingham’s remains had been identified and could be sent to Maine.
His body was sent to Belfast on the train in a casket that had been welded shut.
“There was always a feeling in the family that, very possibly, that wasn’t him,” John Birmingham said.
Although the questions lingered over the subsequent decades, the Birmingham family didn’t talk much about the war.
The other brothers “came home, put their work gloves on and went back to work,” John Birmingham said.
Stuard’s information has set the nephews’ minds at ease. They have learned that there were no survivors and that four other crew members were interred in Kentucky in 1949. Only Briggs and Birmingham were sent home.
Stuard said recently that a family member of Briggs’ has been located in Connecticut. BDN efforts to contact him have been unsuccessful.
Birmingham’s nephews said they have been touched by the French desire to honor their uncle and the other men killed.
According to Stuard, the monument will be dedicated in the town of Lessard-et-le-Chene in Normandy and that the French association is expecting a “great ceremony.”
For Robert Birmingham’s nephews, the tribute will help provide a good ending to a long, sad but important chapter of family history.
“They saved the world, that’s all there is to it,” John Birmingham said of the men and women of the Greatest Generation. “The sad part is, you can multiply [Robert’s] story by 500,000. There were half a million men killed in WWII. They were the heroes of the century, as far as I’m concerned.”