NEW PORT RICHEY
Robert Colgan hadn't planned to give the valedictorian's address at the Gulf High School graduation June 1, 1942. But when the top student got sick, he retreated to his bedroom with a typewriter and defined his generation's duty. • "This class shall have to sacrifice far beyond the trivial prices we have yet paid that we may remain free,'' the 17-year-old salutatorian wrote.
"We, the class of 1942, pledge ourselves to the cause, each to play his own part in winning this war and in making the peace to follow.''
Colgan would go on to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country like so many other heroes, some forgotten by time. His name lives on because of relatives who still celebrate his bravery — and because of the burning curiosity of a young Belgian boy fascinated by Colgan and his compatriots.
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Six months before graduation, Colgan and the rest of the student body had gathered around a radio in the cafeteria to listen to reports of the Pearl Harbor attack. Now most of the men in their small town were heading off to the armed forces. Colgan spent a year at the University of Florida and then enlisted in the Army Air Forces.
Typical of the young man who had posted one of the highest college aptitude scores in the nation, Colgan excelled. He learned to operate radios and finished at the top of his 400-member class at aerial gunners school. On Sept. 4, 1944, he turned 20, ready for war. He was assigned to a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Forty-five yellow bombs painted near its nose heralded the number of missions the Betsy Ross had survived, striking Nazi positions from home base in Nuthampstead, England — a remarkable endurance considering the 398th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force lost roughly one in 20 airmen in combat.
On Oct. 17, with a new crew under Lt. Perry Powell's command, the bomber took off at daybreak with the 603rd Squadron to hit Cologne, Germany. On the way back, shrapnel tore into the plane's wings. Powell ordered Colgan and the rest of the crew to parachute while he and co-pilot Lt. Sam Walker guided the plane away from the tiny village of Belare, in a liberated part of Belgium. They crash-landed in a meadow.
The incident had an enormous impact on a 7-year-old boy named Marcel Janssens. He had been fascinated by the various aircraft high above, but this was the first time he had seen one up close. After officials disarmed the B-17's guns, Marcel joined with other villagers at the wreckage, posing for pictures and marveling at the technology. He called it his "playground.''
All nine crew members escaped injury and found shelter with Canadian troops who treated them to some strong beers at a local brewery. The villagers cheered the Americans and the images stuck in Marcel's mind. They would change his life.
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Colgan wrote home regularly to his parents, Arthur and Elsea, and his sister, Helen, three years younger. His father had been an industrial engineer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before moving to New Port Richey when the children were little and starting an orange grove on 15 acres.
Colgan earned a promotion to sergeant. He recognized his good fortune, having survived the crash in Belgium and a disastrous attack on Nov. 18 when his crew happened to be on a 48-hour pass the day his squadron lost nine of 12 planes.
By February, he had flown 25 missions. The allies had virtually destroyed the Germans' air defense systems. The war in Europe would be over in three months, and it seemed Colgan might make it home. On Feb. 2, he wrote his mom. Routine stuff, mainly. "It's a lot warmer here now, the snow is all gone.'' He had just received seven V-mails, including four from "Jennie.'' He mentioned weekend passes in London and Southport.
The next day the 8th Air Force mounted a massive attack on Berlin. At 10:44 a.m., according to records, Powell's B-17 got caught up in "prop wash,'' turbulence from other planes in the formation. As he adjusted, the plane began to break apart and ripped into one above it piloted by Lt. John McCormick.
The planes fell 25,000 feet, settling a little more than a mile apart before their bombs exploded. Tail gunner Dave Bancroft was the lone survivor of Powell's crew as he was able to parachute. McCormick and his togglier Bill Logan also survived and joined Bancroft as prisoners of war. Logan was killed a short time later during a forced march when U.S. fighter planes strafed the German convoy.
Fifteen airmen, including Colgan, were buried in the cemetery at Lehmke, Germany. Bancroft and McCormick made it home after the war.
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Marcel Janssens grew up, married, had a daughter and became a foreman in a carpet factory in the same Belgian village where the Betsy Ross had crashed. He never stopped wondering what happened to those Americans, and it inspired him to learn English so he could research.
In 1990, he finally found an answer when he contacted the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association. He wrote to relatives of the airmen and in 1991 received a long letter from Bancroft, who described in great detail the collision of the two B-17s.
"They were gallant men,'' he wrote. "I will never know why I was saved. I only know that I should have died with them. This is called 'survivor guilt' by the VA doctors. I also suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and wounds to the head, plus congestive heart failure. But, come what may, I must live until I die. That is what I am trying to do.''
Bancroft died a few years later. McCormick, who went on to pilot bombers in Korea and Vietnam before retiring as a lieutenant colonel, died in 2008 at age 90.
Last July, Janssens' lifelong curiosity led him to Marilyn Hope, Colgan's niece, who had just retired from 20 years teaching at Hillsborough County high schools. He provided details and old pictures of the villagers posing with the Betsy Ross wreckage.
In a phone conversation last month with the Tampa Bay Times, Janssens, 76, said he is finally done with his quest. "It has been a very long time,'' he said. "I will always remember.''
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Marilyn Hope, 61, stopped her SUV on the side of Indiana Avenue in New Port Richey one day last month, just east of Congress Street. As a girl, she played in the Colgans' orange groves. Now the old house is gone, replaced by mobile homes. Her grandparents and parents are buried a few miles away at the Pine Hill Cemetery, where Robert Colgan's remains were relocated in 1949.
Though she now lives in Okeechobee, Hope drives four hours to tend to the graves. "I have wonderful memories,'' she said, pulling weeds from around one of the headstones.
With her three siblings, Hope has studied her uncle's role in the war. She has read her grandmother's journals, which like the V-mail that Colgan alluded to in his last letter home, include references to a "Jennie.''
Who is Jennie?
"She must have been my uncle's girlfriend,'' Hope said.
Colgan's mother separated his personal items from other family treasures, along with the heartbreaking telegram announcing that he was missing over Germany. She kept an unidentified picture of an attractive young brunet posing among flowers.
Local historians checked Gulf High School records for any student named Jennie. They searched U.S. census records. No luck. Longtime residents barely recalled any of the Colgans, much less this young woman. Robert Colgan has been gone 68 years, after all.
But in those family treasures his words remain on typewriter paper now yellowed with age. On this Memorial Day, as Colgan's generation is fast disappearing, they provide evidence of a strength of character and inspiration to a whole new crop of patriots. The message he delivered his fellow high school students bears repeating:
"We are graduating with, as far as possible, a realization of what is required of us, and a determination to fulfill it. We are confident that the American people will not only attain a clear perception of what the situation calls for, but will rise to the occasion, as they always have, with whatever is needed to win.''
Contact Bill Stevens at [email protected], or at (727) 869-6250.