Family prayerfully remembers the brother, uncle killed in WWII
By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
June 1944. Mary McDermott was in the living room of her Glenside home when she heard the shutting of a car door and without waiting for the bell she went to the door. Her son, Paul, 15, home for lunch from Levintow’s Drug Store, heard his mother scream followed by her anguished sobbing.
She had just received the message that her oldest son, Second Lt. Harry McDermott, was missing in action. Harry was a bombardier on a B-17 “Flying Fortress” in the European Theater. Missing in action meant his plane was shot down, and all too often this would mean everyone was dead.
It wasn’t until 16 months later, with the war ended and all P.O.W.s accounted for, that the military confirmed Lt. McDermott was indeed dead. Neither his remains nor those of his crewmates were ever recovered. There is no cross for him in a military cemetery.
Harry McDermott grew up in a family of six children. His dad, also Harry McDermott, was of Irish ancestry; his mother of German ancestry. Their children, in order, were Mary, Harry, Tom, Jack, Paul and Joan.
After St. Luke School Harry went on to St. Joe’s Prep, and then took a job as a salesman. He didn’t have a steady girl but took different dates to dances at Holy Cross and Holy Child.
War broke out in December 1941, and in 1942 he decided to beat the draft by joining up for the service of his choice. He thought he’d like to be a pilot so he signed up with the U.S. Army Air Force (forerunner of the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Air Force).
Because of an eye problem he couldn’t get into flight school but did get into gunnery school. After undergoing eye exercises he passed the test for bombardier training and eventually shipped over and was assigned to the 322nd Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group based in Bassingbourn, Herefordshire, in Southeast England.
Lt. McDermott knew every time he got into an airplane his life was on the line. It was May 1944, and his aircraft, the four-engined B-17, was the workhorse among heavy bombers. Flying Fortresses dropped an estimated 580,000 tons of bombs on European targets during the course of the war.
D-Day was still a week away and bombers of the USAAF were flying out of their bases near the English coast across the Channel and enemy-held territory to targets in the heart of Germany.
Lt. McDermott was part of a crew of nine headed by First Lt. Zack Collier. Their aircraft was dubbed “Lonesome Lady,” with the usual pretty girl painted on the outside, and by late May 1944, 19 bomb silhouettes were stenciled near the name, symbolizing the number of successful missions by the plane and crew.
“I didn’t really know my brother back then,” Paul McDermott said. “It was through his letters I got to know him. He would try to write to our parents every day and apologize if for some reason he didn’t.”
As the bombardier, his job, utilizing the highly effective Norden bombsight as well as radar, was to pinpoint the target and release bombs and then man a machine gun as the plane turned to its home base.
Unlike Great Britain and Germany, neither of which had the airplane production capacity of the United States, the USAAF conducted daylight bomb raids which meant more targets were destroyed. But the downside was more B-17s were lost, either to Luftwaffe fighters or to ground fire.
B-17s were a significant factor in the destruction of Nazi war-making capability, but 4,750 of them, or one-third of those ever built, were lost in combat. Often the crew died with their plane. The Germans estimated it took 20 hits on average to bring down one of the big bombers, but they also knew the bombers were most vulnerable to frontal attack, where, on average, it only took four hits. Naturally, the lead bomber was most at risk during frontal attack. Lt. McDermott’s B-17 was a lead bomber in his formation.
Lt. McDermott never wrote about it to his parents, but in a letter to one of his brothers he confided he didn’t expect to ever come home. As a soldier, this was something he accepted.
On May 30, 1944, just six days from D-Day and about three months shy of Harry’s 22nd birthday, their 20th mission had as its target the Junker aircraft works in Dessau, East Central Germany, where the bombers that terrorized London during the Blitz were built. It was vital to the Allies that the German aircraft industry be destroyed for the success of the upcoming invasion and was just as vital to the Nazis that these factories be safeguarded at all costs, so they were surrounded by anti-aircraft batteries.
The B-17s, each loaded with 10 500-pound bombs, reached the target and virtually destroyed it. However four B-17s were lost, including Lonesome Lady.
Harry’s brother Jack, a gunner on a B-24 Liberator, later got an account of the mission from 322nd Squadron airmen, and it wasn’t good. Harry’s aircraft lost two engines after the bomb run, probably to anti-aircraft flak, and fell out of the formation. It is believed it was shot down near Dessau, but there is no record. Some of the airmen from the other three planes that crashed survived, were captured and released at war’s end, but there were no survivors from Lonesome Lady.
Although the military eventually declared the crew dead, there really was no tangible closure for the McDermott Family. Last May 30, the 50th anniversary of Harry’s death, Paul McDermott and his wife Jeanettewere visiting their son, Father Stephen McDermott, a Philadelphia priest on active duty with the Army Reserves in Germany. He took them to Dessau, the site of Harry’s last battle. At 11:15 a.m., the precise time of the raid, he celebrated Mass in his uncle’s memory at the local Catholic church.
About 20 members of the local Catholic community also attended the Mass.
The war is long over and there was no bitterness. The Americans and Germans were bonded by a life-changing event of long ago. Afterward, a German family invited the McDermotts to dinner at their home.
Recently the family received the Purple Heart, which was Harry’s due, as well as the flag presented to grieving families. At a future date, probably in September of this year, a memorial marker for Lt. Harry McDermott will be unveiled with military honors at the grave of his parents in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Philadelphia.
His body won’t be there, only his heroic spirit.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.