Family receives downed WWII pilot's boots nearly 70 years later

Nearly 70 years after he went down over the Philippines, an army pilot's beloved shoes make their way back to his sister in St. Petersburg.
Published November 27 2013

On Nov. 9, 1944, under heavy fire, a B-25 bomber co-piloted by 21-year-old Army Air Corps pilot, 2nd Lt. John H. Dunham of St. Petersburg was hit and went down in Ormoc Bay in the Philippines.

He was never heard from again, his Purple Heart ending up with one of his three sisters, Mary Smith of St. Petersburg, who, in turn, passed it along to her grandson, Air Force Lt. Col. Brian Smith — with a request that he try to find out what had happened to her brother long ago on that island nation on the other side of the world.

Smith started his research by contacting members of the 500th Bomb Squadron Association, who, in turn, directed him to Lawrence J. Hickey's book Warpath Across the Pacific. It was there that Smith found out his great-uncle had died on a mission to bomb a Japanese naval convoy.

Hickey titled the chapter "Suicide Mission to Ormoc Bay."

Earlier this year, Mary Smith was reunited with something else that had belonged to her brother: a pair of leather boots that he had picked up in Australia when he flew there on a supply mission with his best buddy, 2nd Lt. Joe Symonds. The boots, made trendy by the British flyers who had started wearing them, were his favorite.

They weren't government-issued so he couldn't wear them when flying, but old photographs of him and his Army buddies show he was pretty proud of those off-duty kicks.

After Dunham was killed, Symonds was in charge of packing up his footlocker and sending it home to his wife. Symonds sent everything except the boots — which he kept as a reminder of John and their good times together.

Symonds took those boots he never wore home with him to Defiance, Ohio, after he was discharged and many years later, his son-in-law Dennis O'Neill spotted them and asked him about them.

He simply replied that they had belonged to a very good friend, John Dunham.

• • •

O'Neill, of Toledo, Ohio, wasn't a soldier himself but he lived vicariously through his father-in-law's war memories and accompanied him to 500th and 345th Bomb Squadron reunions, befriending and staying in touch with the people he met there.

After Symonds died in 2012, O'Neill set out to return the boots to Dunham's family. He made arrangements with Brian Smith to send them to his grandmother as a surprise.

When she got the still-gleaming boots, she set them in her foyer and stuffed them with newspaper so that they would stand upright.

"I feel John's spirit in those boots each time I look at them," Mary Smith said.

O'Neill shared something even more precious with her — memories of her brother. Symond's wife had saved every letter he sent home from the war and O'Neill had read and reread them all.

"Letters written 70 years ago can't be misrepresented. They are what survived the war," he said.