After preliminary ground training, the navigation student spends 18 weeks at the AAF navigation school at Hondo, Texas. In this specialized phase of training, he becomes deadly accurate at the task of directing a bomber and its crew to enemy objectives and return. Several thousand miles of both day and night flying are made under varying weather conditions, and many hours are spent in the class room.
These newly-graduated navigators are primed for action with their fighting fraternity brothers – the rugged Boomerang Boys who are finding Axis targets on every front.
Lt. McConnaha is the son of Mrs. Nancy McConnaha, 402 West Lincoln Street, Blair. Other aerial navigators from Nebraska in Lt. McConnaha’s class are Lt. Robert L. Woodard of Chadron and Lt. Donald R. Raichle of Fremont.
Article 30 September 1943
W. McConnaha Missing In Action
Word reached Blair last Sunday, from Navy headquarters, bearing the sad news that Wendell A. McConnaha, of this city was missing in action.
McConnaha, who was in the air service, was stationed in England and had made several raids into the enemy territory. The telegram bearing the sad news was the same brief, form note that is sent on such occasions.
Wendell has lived in Blair for several years. He comes of a family of early settlers and of people highly respected. He was a graduate of the Blair High School and was for some time an employee in the AAA office.
His mother, Mrs. Nancy McConnaha, is a resident of Blair and is deeply grieved over the news.
Pilot 20 Sept 1943
Lt. McConnaha ?
Blairite Aboard Bomber
Was Aboard Bomber In Raids On Enemy
Blairite, Former FSA and AAA Assistant, Had Reached Britain Only Recently as a Navigator, was in Raids on German Regions
The war department has announced that Lt. Wendell K. McConnaha, 28, of Blair, navigator aboard a Britain based U.S. bomber, as missing in action.
His mother, Mrs. Nancy McConnaha of 402 west Lincoln street, received the message Sunday, but no further information was given. There is a possibility he may be a prisoner of the Germans.
Lt. McConnaha only recently went to Britain, and was known to have taken part in several raids over German territory.
Formerly associated with the Farm Security Administration and the AAA here, Lt. McConnaha was graduated and commissioned at Hondo, Tex., in May. He was graduated from Herman high school then attended Wayne State Teachers college two years, later working in Omaha, then in Oregon.
Lt. McConnaha’s father is the late Robert McConnaha. Lt. McConnaha has four brothers, Mark of Blair, Ray of Herman, Robert of Harvard and Richard of Pender; and two sisters, Mrs. Elizabeth Staples of Blair and Mrs. A. T. Ball (Mary) of Leavenworth, Kan.
American Battle Monuments Commission – The World War II Honor Roll
Wendell K. McConnaha, Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Forces
350th Bomber Squadron 100th Bomber Group, Heavy
Entered the Service from: Nebraska
Died: 10 Dec 1943
Buried at: Plot C Row 1 Grave 11 Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands
Awards: Purple Heart
Pilot Tribune 19 Oct 1944
McConnaha Declared Dead
Mystery Surrounds Death Of Lt. McConnaha, Lost Over France
Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha, son of Mrs. Nancy McConnaha of Blair, was declared officially dead this week by the war department, ending a period of uncertainty which extended over more than a year.
Lost over France on September 15, 1943, Lt. McConnaha was the navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress which was severely damaged by enemy anti-aircraft fire while on a bombing mission over France. All personnel parachuted safely, and Lt. McConnaha was known to have survived the plane crash.
He suffered a “fatal accident,” however, on or about December 10, 1943, a war department message informed Mrs. McConnaha on Saturday. The message continued, “I regret that because of reasons involving national security neither the source of this information nor the details of the accident can be revealed at this time.”
An official finding of death has been recorded, with the date set as September 16, 1944, the day following the expiration of 12 months’ absence.
Enterprise 19 Oct 1944
Army Confirms Death of Lt. W. McConnaha
Missing Since September 15, 1943, Proofs Now Point To His Death
Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha, son of Mrs. Nancy McConnaha of Blair, is now reported dead. Lt. McConnaha has been missing since September 14, 1943, when the plane of which he was navigator was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. The crew bailed out and it was reported that all reached ground safely.
It now appears that Lt. McConnaha later suffered a fatal accident on or about December 10, 1943. It seems that the information has just recently been brought to light and that the source cannot be revealed.
Deceased was well known in Blair where he had lived for some time and where he was an employee in the AAA office.
The information furnished the War Department does not establish an actual or probable date of death but there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the department of his death.
The following was in an article or book – A Time To Speak
McConnaha (Pages 80-87)
Somewhere in England September 14, 1943
Well, it is the beginning of another week, so perhaps I should drop you a few lines to let you know I am okay. Have had a few exciting moments, but stayed lucky. I am enclosing a few clippings which you can give to Metta after you’ve finished reading them. She can put them in her scrapbook. Incidentally, I think I told Metta I had talked to Frank and Max last week, which was a typographical error. I hadn’t talked to them at all.
Please let me know how long it is taking (my letters) to get through, and if it is too long, I will try using V-mail. I certainly haven’t been spending much money lately. Be sure and let me know about the allotment and whether my suitcase got there from Kansas.
Time for me to eat now, and I will close. Hope everyone is okay. Write.
Love, Wendell (Photo)
It was a letter written in code, and back in Nebraska, his mother knew what it meant. “Frank” and “Max” were not friends of her son-they were code names for France and Germany, and “talked” meant “bombed”. She also knew that her son wrote the opposite of what really happened. In his letter, he was describing bombing missions of the past month.
He had wavy hair and blue eyes, the quick wit of an Irishman and the name to match—Wendell Keith McConnaha. He joined the Army Air Corps, hoping to become a pilot. While training in Texas a severe case of yellow jaundice put him in the hospital. To his mother, he wrote, “I’m so yellow that when the nurses walk by the door, they pause and wait for the light to change.”
McConnaha’s illness caused him to fall behind in the pilot training schedule so he transferred to bombardier school, graduating first in his class at Thunderbird Field in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He went on to navigator school and was a lieutenant in the 100th Bombardment Group, stationed at Thorpe Abbotts, England by the summer of 1943.
On the last Sunday in September of that year, Mrs. McConnaha received word of her youngest son.
9:58 P.M. 26 September 1943 Mrs. Nancy McConnaha, 402 West Lincoln Street, Blair, Nebraska
I regret to inform you that the Commanding General European area reports your son Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha missing in action since 15 September. If further details or other information of his status are received you will be promptly notified.
Mrs. McConnaha was at church when the telegram came. Her sons, Mark and Ray, and daughter, Elizabeth Staples, were waiting when she arrived home. Widowed in 1938, Mrs. McConnaha faced the brutal uncertainty of the next year with their support, as well as that of sons, Robert and Richard, and daughter, Margaret Ball.
Friends and neighbors offered sympathy, expressing hope that the young lieutenant would be reported safe, after all. The McConnaha cousins, some nearly the age of their missing uncle, watched and waited, recalling the happy times spent in his company.
Niece Mary Helen Staples, 19 years old in 1943, remembered well the childhood “baseball” games in the barnyard. She and Wendell had improvised in those Depression years, pitching corn cobs and hitting home runs with bats carved from boards. As a little girl, she’d kept his white shoes polished and ready to wear to the dances he frequented.
On his last night before leaving for the service, he’d passed up the opportunity to escort his current girlfriend to a Blair dance, instad choosing Mary Helen as his “date”. It was a night she would treasure the rest of her life.
Mary Helen was dating a serviceman when her uncle returned to Blair in July 1943. It was his final leave before shipping overseas and the teenagers invited him to accompany them on a trip to Omaha. But, he declined, expressing a desire to spend a little more time with his mother. As the car pulled away from the sidewalk, McConnaha stood, waving goodbye to Mary Helen.
Reported missing, the lieutenant was also in the hearts and minds of the men he had served with in England. In the summer of 1944, eight months after the MIA telegram, a postcard arrived at Mrs. McConnaha’s home.
May 27, 1944 Dear Mac,
Before I was shot down, I heard that you were supposedly reported missing. I surely hope the rumor was false and that you are back home. Mrs. McConnaha, if Mac isn’t back, I’d surely like to hear about him. We were very close friends. Best regards, Halpin
But Mrs. McConnaha had nothing to offer Lt. Vincent C. Halpin, Jr. She still waited to hear from the Air Corps. Listed as her son’s dependent, she continued to receive an allotment from McConnaha’s service pay. His suitcase, left in the Kansas staging area, had long since found its way back to Nebraska.
October 9, 1944, the War Department letter came.
Dear Mrs. McConnaha, Since your son, Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha, 0734994, Air Corps, was reported missing in action Sept. 115, 1943, the War Department has entertained the hope that he survived and that information would be revealed dispelling the uncertainty surrounding his absence.
However, as in many cases, the conditions of warfare deny us such information. The record concerning your son shows that he was the navigator aboard a B-17 F (Flying Fortress) on a bombing mission over France. The plane was severely damaged by enemy aircraft fire and all personnel parachuted safely.
Unofficial information recently received in the War Department is to the effect that, while your son survived the plane crash, he suffered a fatal accident on or about December 10, 1943. I regret that, because of reasons involving national security, neither the source of this information or the details of this accident can be revealed at this time.
I regret the necessity for this message, but trust that the ending of a long period of uncertainty may at least give you some small measure of consolation. I hope that you may find sustaining comfort in the thought that the uncertainty with which war has surrounded the absence of your son has enhanced the honor of his service to his country and of his sacrifice.
Nancy McConnaha did not put a god star in her window. But the October letter was followed by a $10,000 insurance payment from the U.S. government, and the family of Wendell McConnaha knew, after a year of secretly knowing in their hearts, that the good looking Irishman with twinkling eyes was never coming home.
The McConnahas comforted one another with the thought that his death was meant to be. McConnaha had not married and had no children. He had been a good son, leaving a life in Oregon and returning to Nebraska to care for his dying father. He had trained diligently in the service, and enjoyed heartily a furlough in Santa Ana, California, at one time posing for pictures with entertainers Joe E. Brown and Judy Canova.
He had touched many lives. But where had he been between the bailout over France I September of 1943 and his death two months later? And how had he died? Mrs. McConnaha was still waiting for answers when a letter arrived in December of 1944. It was written in French and Mrs. McConnaha searched for a translator.
December 5, 1944 Dear Madame, Your dear Mac has given me your address, but unfortunately I know too little American to write you. I wish, I may beg of you, to give me some news of Mac. I have hidden him in our house in October, 1943, and the French underground has given him the name of Emile Lembert, which made him laugh. We have unforgettable memories of these boys, fallen in parachutes on the soil of France, and since we ae without news, we suffer a great deal.
Give me quickly some news which you have. You may write in American and I will have it translated. Receive, dear friends, my best memory, my respects to your family. Monsieur and Madame Albert Lemmoun
It was a bittersweet Christmas gift. Mrs. McConnaha now realized that her son had been taken in by members of the French underground, a network of patriots who spirited thousands of Allied servicemen out from under the noses of the Nazis. The Irish McConnahas, smiling at the thought of their brother’s French alias, found solace in the realization that someone had cared. But, sadly, they could send little comfort back to the Lemmouns.
New Year, 1945 Dear Madame, It is the memory which so many person in France have kept of him, of your great son, Mac, which evokes in us so many regrets at his sad disappearance. Of him, we keep warmly a memory in our hearts. Friendship to you, Madame, on the part of Madame Lemmoun, who sheltered and hid your son in 1943. Of him we have had no other news. Monsieur and Madame Albert Lemmoun send you our best wishes for the new year.
In 1945, victory was declared by the Allies, first in Europe and finally over the Japanese in the Pacific. Millions of Americans celebrated, and Nancy McConnaha, ever the gracious lady, was grateful that so many families had been spared the agony of her own. But there would be no celebration. The war was over, but no one would return to the house on Lincoln Street.
Still, there were questions left unanswered, and Mrs. McConnaha continued writing to the War Department, in hopes of learning the cause of her son’s death. In the spring of 1946, two and one-half years after that first telegram, she received another letter from the War Department.
Dear Mrs. McConnaha, I am referring to your letter of February 6, 1946, concerning your son, Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha.. Your desire to be fully informed of the circumstances surrounding your son’s death is most understandable and I regret that so much sorrow has come to you.
The records of this office show that on Sept. 15, 1943, Lt. McConnaha was a crewmember of a B-17 Flying Fortress that participated on an operational mission against the Renault (aircraft) plant in Paris France. The plane was severely damaged by enemy anti-aircraft fire and all personnel parachuted safely, your son reaching the ground near St. Just, about 40 miles nearly due north of Paris. While attempting to evade capture by the enemy and effect his escape, Lt. McConaha disappeared while crossing a dangerous trail in a rugged section of the Pyrennes Mountains separating France from Spain.
In reply to your request from this office, First Lieutenant James G. Bormuth, a member of your son’s crew, who successfully completed the crossing, submitted the following information regarding Lt. McConnaha:
“Lt. Wendell K. McConnaha, who traveled with me all the time, disappeared in the mountains on or about Dec. 9, 1943. As we were crossing the mountains single file, Lt. McConnaha was last in line. A Frenchman who was ahead of Lt. McConnaha said he had fallen behind. We looked for him and all we found was his scarf. This place was about 100 yards from the top of the mountain. The only thing that we figured could have happened was that he fell over the side.
Our guides told us that Germans were near and they could not risk having us go back down the mountain as it may mean the lives of the rest of us.”
On July 12, 1944, a report was received from the office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, Military Intelligence Headquarters, European Theater of Operations, to the effect that the body of a man was discovered about 50 meters inside the Spanish border near Le Col de l’Estaque. The German soldiers in charge kept the identity a secret, but it was reported to be “Lt. W. K. Mcomroha, 073944”.
This report, showing correct Army serial number, similarity in rank and initials, and a garbled but readily recognizable name, indicates the body very possibly was that of your son. Aside from this consideration, however, the possibility that Lt. McConnaha survived seems very remote when it is considered that such a long time elapsed since he became missing in action during which time no report has been received from any source indicating that he has been seen alive or heard from by anyone subsequent to his disappearance in the Pyrennes…
Under a comprehensive plan which is now in operation, search teams are examining cemetery records, German documents, and are conducting interrogations in an endeavor to uncover additional data regarding those personnel listed as missing, including those in whose case presumptive finds of death were made.
Should further information be received you will be promptly notified. Permit me to extend my heartfelt sympathy in the irreparable loss of your beloved son.
And so it was that a mother learned of her son’s final moments. The French underground, successful in so many escapes, had been unable to save Wendell McConnaha. The family never knew more exact details of this death. Word of the location of his remains did not arrive until January 14, 1948.
Department of the Army, Office of the Quartermaster General, Washington, D.C. Dear Mrs. McConnaha
We are desirous that you be furnished information regarding your son, the last Second Lieutenant Wendell K. McConnaha.
The official report of burial indicates the remains of a deceased person were recovered by our American Graves Registration Unites from a shallow grave at Col de la Corbascar, which is about 100 meters within Spanish territory. These remains were identified at the time of the disinterment, and as a result of a subsequent investigation, as those of your son. I am gratified to inform you his remains are now resting in Plot G.G.G., Row 9, Grave 222 in the United States Military Cemetery, Margraten, Holland.
This cemetery is located 10 miles west of Aachen, Germany, and is under the constant care and supervision of our Government, and has been designated as a permanent American Military cemetery.
The Department of the Army has been authorized to comply, at Government expense, with the feasible wishes of the next of kin regarding final interment, here or abroad, of the remains of your loved one. At a later date, our office will provide you with full information and solicit your detailed desires.
Choosing not to bring the body home, the McConnahas placed a marker in the family plot at Tekamah Cemetery. In 1946, a son born to Ray and McConnaha received the name of the uncle he never knew. In 1947, Mary Helen married Byrom Bergman and moved into her own home.
Sometime in 1948, Mrs. McConnaha learned of a volunteer organization of Dutch citizens, who were “adopting” the graves of the servicemen at Margraten. The goal of these volunteers was to care for the graves as family members would, visiting the sites and leaving flowers. Mrs. McConnaha evidently attempted to contact the organization to arrange an “Adoption” of her son’s final resting place. The initial effort must have proved fruitless, but as the following letter indicates, Mrs. McConnaha’s request eventually fell into good hands.
September 27, 1948 Dear Mrs. McConnaha,
If no one has adopted the grave, I will be very happy to do it for you if you want me to…I assure you that when I adopt the grave, it will be as good as possible, and I will tell you that I will visit the grave about every 14 days. On my desk in the living room are the pictures of the boys and I always have fresh flowers by those pictures. I hope to hear from you..I can give you some consolation after visiting your boy’s grave and sending you a picture. The people of southern Holland are still very grateful for the liberation by your boys. Sincerely, Mary Kryger.
Wendell McConnaha was buried in Holland and his mother lived half a world away, but here at last, was a way to bridge the gap.
January 27, 1949 Dear Mrs. McConnaha,
It took me a long time before I write to you from Holland…for several weeks I could not find your letter with the address..I did receive your letter with five dollars…and I should use the Dutch money for a wreath for your boy’s grave. The cemetery is still closed for visitors, but I promise you that I’ll bring the flowers of you, and me, too, the first day that we can go to visit the cemetery. I did not know what kind of information you got of the government and so I will tell you that each boy got a Christian burial with a chaplain of his own faith.
People are redecorating the graves, and stones will be placed on it and as soon as possible I will send you a picture…I have visited a lot of Gold Star families and have seen myself what a sorrow it is in those families and so I can understand what you must feel.
I have myself one boy of 14 years, he is in school in the north, we are living in the south, and only home at vacation time. I am 41 and my husband, 40. We are living in a village about 11 miles from the cemetery. I mostly went by car or trolley, sometimes by bike…I hope you will write to me again and tell me of your life and family. Many best wishes…Mary Kryger
If you get word over the number of the grave, the plot and row, please inform me. I would be very pleased to know your birthdate and those of your family. I mostly visit a grave on those days. Also, on the birthday of the boy, the day he was killed and the day he was buried in the cemetery. God bless you all and your lovely country.
Mrs. McConnaha could visit the marker in the Tekamah Cemetery on Memorial Day, knowing that far away in Holland, another mother would say a prayer over her son’s grave. As promised, Mary Kryger would find Grave 11, Row 1, Plot C in the Margraten Cemetery every May 30 – Wendell K. McConnaha’s birthday.
~~~ Obituary courtesy of the Washington County Genealogical Society. Newspaper clippings on file in the Blair Public Library at Blair, Nebraska.~~~