11 November 2009

For Veteran's Day: Uncle Mickey

He died before I was born and the family did not talk much about my uncle Mickey. I just remember that it seemed a difficult topic for them. The great sense of sadness was a constant. Over the years, I learned from them that he had died in World War II in something to do with a plane crash. Much later, as I became more serious about formal genealogy, researching Uncle Harry became one of my goals.

Uncle Mickey was the fourth child of Benjamin Theodore Hegwer and his wife, Bertha Maud Carr. Mickey was born in 1918 at the Lifton Power Station where Ben worked and a house at the station came with the job. I have very few photos of the family while they were there in the Bear Lake, Idaho area, but this one is a favorite from May 1925 on 'the old canal at little dirt dam' at Lifton -- Herb, Wyla, Ray, Mickey, Lelia (left to right).

His name was really Harry Albert, but I didn't know that until I was an adult. A sister-in-law said he was very handsome and a good tennis player. A sister says "his name was really 'Henry' but no one ever, ever called him that." I have never seen it on a document, but 'Henry' is a family forename in each of his parent's families. By the time I had real questions to ask, there was no one left who knew how they got 'Mickey.'

Years later, after moving to Los Angeles, the family lived near the Stapp family, whose son 'Babe', was an Indy 500 driver. 'Pop' Stapp took quite a liking to Mickey and he accompanied them to Indianapolis at least once. I remember seeing Aunt Barbara's photos of Mickey at Indy with a race car (I wish I had a copy of the photo). This one is Mickey and 'Pop' Stapp in their front yard, circa late 1930s; I don't know what they were celebrating.

At 5'8" and 145 lbs., Uncle Mickey enlisted in the US Army Air Corps on 15 November 1941 at Fort McArthur, Los Angeles County, California [1]. He served in the Sixth Air Force [2], earning at least 2 medals [3,4], but was with the First Air Force at the time of his death.

A request for his compiled military records received two responses: there was nothing more to request and that I wasn't a close enough relation to request it anyway. There may be more info there, but I think what I found next will be enough for me.

A very brief Los Angeles Times article about the plane crash gave me, for the first time, a date and a location: 8 January 1944, a crash into the James River of Virginia [5]. When the article was posted to the AP, Uncle Mickey and one other man were still missing while 9 crew members were being treated for exposure. I had never considered that there would have been other men involved in a crash! With all this new information, I was able to do a more thorough internet search and found an article in the "The News" of Frederick, Maryland of January 10 [6] and the same article in the Frederick Post on the next day. This article listed Uncle Mickey and 3 other crew members by name. I am purposely omitting the names of all the crew. It is possible that the crash survivors are still living and the subject could be a difficult one for them or their families.

I also found Uncle Mickey in an online obituary index for the Alexandria, Virginia library. For a very small fee, they sent me a copy of the front page item from the Alexandria Gazette of 13 Jan 1944. The librarian also included a very nice letter naming the other newspapers she had searched on her own and several suggestions of other things to try. ( I have had very good experiences with local libraries and their services. Writing this blog entry reminds me that I should write more often to local libraries even when I have not found anything from them online.)

Using the pilot's name in a few different search engines, I found the crash listed at the Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research website. They showed the plane as a B24, serial number 42-7339. The site had lots of general info about accident reports, which was all very new to me. Uncle Mickey's name also showed up at Accident-Report.com, specializing in military aviation accident reports. I could order a specific report from them, but I first decided to see if I could find it another way.

Coincidentally at about this time, one of the genealogy societies in my area had a guest presentation by the local NARA archivist. He listened to my brief question about military crash reports and he suggested I check the national NARA website for their military specialist. While I couldn't find a specific reference to such a specialist at their extensive site, I did find an email address for something they now call "Find and Request" and sent off my question about finding crash or accident reports from WWII.

They responded the very same day that such records were held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency in Alabama. Who knew?! While NARA had included a postal contact address, I went online to see what I could find. Quickly, I had a new email address and dashed off another query that Friday. While I expected a general reply about how to order a search, on Monday I received a short email that just asked me to include a mailing address since they could not send reports by email. No order form, no fee, no wait: I had the 19-page document in my hands 5 days later. Here's an excerpt of the first page.

It's been 3 years since I received the accident report and it is still difficult for me to review it. The report lists the entire crew and lots of detail about the plane and its flight history. Signed, individual statements from each of the 9 survivors make up the bulk of the pages.

Very generally, they took off for a training mission, encountered bad weather, and the instructor pilot gave orders to abandon ship; he was one of the first off the plane and 6 other crew parachuted with him. The problem was that one of the crew had spilled his parachute all over the flight deck and could not jump. By the time the student pilot and one last crew got to the bomb door, Uncle Mickey and the crew member without a 'chute were the only other ones left on board. Crew statements said that Uncle Mickey refused to jump since the other man couldn't. The student pilot decided to try to land the plane and went for the nearby James River, wheels up. He and the engineer were picked up by fishing boats. The man who could not jump was found in the river later, dead. Uncle Mickey's body was found still wedged in the wreckage when the plane was recovered later.

There was an accident review board and their summary is signed by a major and 4 captains. There had been a relatively minor mechanical failure, but the instructor pilot was found 90% responsible for the crash and loss of life for 3 reasons: he could have turned back when the mechanical failure was first discovered; he should have stayed with his crew and made more effort; and if he had checked the weather conditions properly, he would have known that flying only 15 mintues north would have taken them all out of the bad weather. As far as I know, Mickey's family was not given any of this information at the time of his death.

Uncle Mickey is buried at Forest Lawn Glendale, as are two of his brothers and one set of his grandparents. It's a beautiful view from his grave site, surrounded by tall, stately trees.

It's good to keep talking with family about what I find. It seems that with each of my 'finds,' they remember more than they had been able to tell me earlier. And, talking about one thing always leads to more or new info on other subjects.

Attending presentations at local genealogy groups can give an opportunity to talk with experts in all sorts of fields. Libraries near where events occurred can have information and be of other help. Sending an email to a government agency and asking questions can also be very helpful. Using more than one search engine can be useful, too.

Uncle Mickey's life was brief but he still left quite a story. I still feel the sadness, but not from knowing nothing at all.

Grave marker photo by MHD; children photo in MHD collection

[1] NARA - Access to Archival Databases:
World War II Army Enlistment Records, created 6/1/2002 - 9/30/2002, documenting the period ca. 1938 - 1946, Record Group 64; online at aad.archives.gov, entry for Harry A. Hegwer, downloaded 19 Dec 2005. Image at ancestry.com: US World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946; cites NARA Record Group 64.

[2] Something About Everything Military: The Sixteen Air Forces, online at www.jcs-group.com/military/aaforces.html, downloaded 31 Aug 2005. "Sixth Air Force -- Constituted as Panama Canal AF on 19 Oct 1940. Activated in the Canal Zone on 20 Nov 1940. Redesignated Caribbean AF in Aug 1941, and Sixth AF in Feb 1942. Served primarily in defense of the Panama Canal; also engaged in antisubmarine operations. Campaigns: Antisubmarine, American Theater."

[3] Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug 1943, p. 5. Online through ProQuest Historical Newspapers. "Air Medal Goes to 78 Army Men - Washington, Aug. 3. The War Department tonight announced awards of the Air Medal to 78 officers and enlisted men of the United States Army 6th Air Force assigned to the Caribbean Defense Command for long-range antisubmarine patrol flights over the Pacific and Caribbean area. Those decorated include ... Sergt. Harry A. Hegwer, gunner, Alhambra, ... ." (Uncle Mickey was one of 4 men listed in this brief article)

[4] Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug 1943, p. A20. Online through ProQuest Historical Newspapers. "Southlanders Win Air Medals on Four Fronts - More names of Southern California fighters appeared yesterday in a War Department list, which had been transmitted ... Awards of the Air Medal to the following California men with the 6th Air Force in the Caribbean, also were announced: ... Sergt. Harry A. Hegwer of Alhambra, ...." (Thirty men were listed in this article, from Australian, Caribean, South Pacific, and Sicilian operations.)

[5] Los Angeles Times, 11 Jan 1944, p. A.
Online through ProQuest Historical Newspapers. "Two of Bomber Crew Missing After Crash -- Langley Field (Va.) Jan. 10 (AP) -- Two members of the crew of a four-engined bomber from Langley Field were missing and nine others were suffering from shock and exposure after their plane crashed in the James River near here Saturday, the Army announced today. One of the missing is listed as Staff Sgt. Henry A. Hegwer, 25, of 1913 Princess St., Alhambra, Cal." [NOTE: the street name should be 'Primrose;' that was Grandma Bertha's house and is still there.]

[6] The News (Frederick, Maryland), 10 Jan 1944, p. 1, col 6. Online at NewspaperArchive.com.


  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I'm fairly new, as well, and have found it most stimulating, especially the Daily Themes.

    Best wishes on your endeavors!

    Keeping telling your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)

  2. Wow, good for you for digging until you found your uncle's story.

    Welcome to geneabloggers!