Event gave heroes deserved recognition

Warren Carah told the crowd of nearly 100 people gathered last week at the Samuel E. Lanza Veterans Resource Center in Warren that he was hoping his story would enlighten and teach today’s youth about the amazing sacrifices made during World War II.

While I know I’m not what he meant by “today’s youth,” I can say for sure Mr. Carah’s story enlightened me.

Carah, of Michigan, is the son of World War II B-17 co-pilot John Carah, who was flying a mission over occupied France 75 years ago last week. On July 4, 1943, his plane was brought down by enemy fire, leaving the crew of 10 either dead, captured or fleeing for their lives.

On board were two area men, 1937 Warren G. Harding graduate 2nd Lt. George Williams of Warren and Pilot Olof Ballinger of Newton Falls.

Ballinger evaded capture and went into hiding. Over the course of several months and with the help of a secret pipeline of Nazi resistance, he escaped on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains during winter.

Williams, the bombardier on the aircraft, perished in the crash. His parachute accidentally deployed inside the plane, leaving him with no way to escape the plunging B-17.

Williams’ remains were recovered and buried for a time in Europe. Years later he was exhumed and brought back home to be buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Warren.

It was there, beneath a weed-covered tombstone, that this story picks up.

Warren Councilman John Brown, a U.S. Army veteran himself, accompanied by former Trumbull County Recorder Diana Marchese, was marking veterans graves with American flags shortly before the Memorial Day holiday when Brown swept away weeds from Williams’ grave. He took note of the headstone indicating the man — just a lad, really — had died on the 4th of July, nearly 75 years earlier.

The weed-covered, forgotten grave of this World War II hero moved him immensely, and he began a quest to research the story. With the help of Tribune Chronicle community events coordinator Sue Shafer, Brown was determined to piece together historical details of the airman’s service and death.

He scoured yearbooks, military records and anything he could find about Williams and the crew. In the process, he was led to Carah. Almost as amazing as the story itself, it turns out that Carah had preserved his father’s memoirs and had been involved in the making of a documentary in which a group of Americans, including at least two family members of crewmen on this very B-17 aircraft, had visited France to retrace steps the survivors took to evade capture in 1943.

Carah speaks publicly about the harrowing plane crash and appears in the documentary. He graciously accepted Brown’s invitation to speak here and to show the documentary. Additionally, two women who had made the trip to France and had appeared in the documentary also attended last week’s event in Warren.

“We as Americans have lost touch with what freedom really means,” said a present-day Pittsburgh-area airman appearing in the documentary. He was from the same 381st training group that had produced some of the crew of the doomed Fourth of July 1943, B-17 flight, and he had been invited also to make the trip to France.

The timing and manner in which the story and last week’s event came together is no less than remarkable.

As he stood before the crowd in the large meeting room at Trumbull County’s veterans center named for one of our own esteemed local World War II heroes, Samuel E. Lanza, Mr. Carah spoke.

In answer to one veteran’s questions, Mr. Carah explained that survivors from this flight — and any doomed flight, in fact — were awarded medals, but no other significant recognition. That’s because, he said, evading and escaping was simply considered part of the job, and they weren’t rewarded heavily for that.

“They didn’t get a lot of recognition,” he said, then paused. “Perhaps that’s why I’m here today, giving them the recognition they deserve.”