A big brother, fond memories come home after 66 years
The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch/MCT
Franklin Cassell watched with his two sisters as the honor guard pulled the flag-draped casket from the airliner's cargo ramp and moved toward the hearse waiting on the tarmac at Richmond International Airport.
Big brother Billy was coming home at last.
Tech. Sgt. William S. Cassell was a 21-year-old radio assistant on a B-17 Flying Fortress on its way from Naples, Italy, to London when it crashed into Mont Blanc, France, about 4 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1946.
Billy Cassell had survived his service in the late stages of World War II in the Army Air Forces, his siblings said, earning a battle star. He was only a few weeks from finishing his service and coming back to his family, Franklin said.
Franklin Cassell's tender memories of his brother welled up Friday at the airport.
"He was seven years older than me. I felt safe when he was around," Cassell said. "My big brother took care of me."
He said the brothers shared a bedroom in the attic of their home in Mount Airy, N.C. "It was dark up there, but as long as he was with me, I wasn't scared. Before I would go to sleep I would put my hand out on him — so he wouldn't leave without me knowing it.
"I was 12 years old the last time I saw him," he said. "He had been home on furlough for three or four days. I went with Dad to take him to the Greyhound bus station. I remember him sitting next to the window and waving as the bus pulled onto Main Street in Mount Airy and headed south."
His father and mother, Payton and Estelle Cassell, made sure their son knew they were thinking of him.
"We sent a box of things to him every week," Cassell said. "You bought a special metal box for a dollar and mailed it. You didn't know exactly where it was going. You sent it to a military post office box and they took it from there.
"It was a Friday night affair for the family, getting the box packed a certain way."
After a while, Cassell said, his father took one of the boxes apart, "and from then on he made them himself to save the dollar. That was a lot of money then."
Payton Cassell was a stonecutter for a Mount Airy company and "could make anything. When we moved to Virginia after Billy was killed, he built our house from scratch."
The family settled in Amelia, where the two sisters still live. Franklin Cassell lives in Ashland.
Cassell said Billy played baseball for his high school team and worked in a Mount Airy jewelry store after school.
Sister Mary Lee Cassell Musulin has saved a blue-glass clock her brother gave her when she was just 12. "I didn't think he really liked me all that much," she said, smiling at the recollection. "I've kept that clock on my dresser ever since."
Perhaps her most treasured memory, she said, came when she was 15 and he was home briefly from his service.
"We were in the kitchen with Mom," she said. "The radio was playing and Billy said, 'Come on, I'll teach you to dance.' He was in his uniform. Mom was so proud of him, and I was so thrilled that he would teach his little sister to dance."
Hannah Cassell Anderson was the baby sister, only a few months old when their brother's plane failed by only a few yards to clear the summit of Mont Blanc, at 15,781 feet the tallest peak in western Europe.
What she remembers is the way Billy was thought of by her parents and siblings.
"He was the golden boy of the family," she said. "He set the bar for the rest of us."
After the plane crashed, the family got a phone call telling them that it was missing. A telegram arrived a few minutes later. "We knew it was pretty certain that he was dead," Musulin said. She remembered that while the family waited for the telegram, her mother went to fetch her father outside.
As they walked toward the house from a hill, she said, he put his arm around his wife in a rare show of affection.
After the crash in the winter of 1946, it took until the following summer to recover a few remains of the eight crew members and bits of the plane that had plowed into the Estellette Glacier. The body parts recovered were buried in a single casket in Arlington National Cemetery with a stone bearing the eight names.
Over the course of decades, and as the result of many excursions onto Mont Blanc, the glacier continued to give up parts of the plane and remains of the crew.
Thanks to the U.S. military's relentless efforts to identify and return the remains of everyone who dies in service, DNA tests finally identified some of the remains as those of Billy Cassell.
Those remains were brought to Richmond Friday. Sunday, after at 2 p.m. memorial service at Piedmont Baptist Church, Billy's remains will be interred in a grave next to that of his father and mother at Pine Grove Cemetery in Amelia.
The siblings said their father was never the same after the death of their brother. "He never had a good word to say about the military or the government," said Franklin Cassell.
Not long after his son's death, Payton Cassell, the stonecutter, moved his family to Amelia. There, he opened his own business making gravestones. He crafted the monument that marks the grave for himself and his wife, and a smaller stone — about 2 feet by 1 foot — placed at the foot of their grave in memory of their son.
Now the son's last remains come to occupy the space.
"I think my mother and father know it," Cassell said. "We live by our faith. I think they know."
The boy who had watched his big brother smile and wave from a bus window was now the man watching Billy's remains begin their last journey in a hearse. The honor guard gave its final salute.
"I am glad to be here for this moment," he said. "Glad to see the military pay tribute to my brother. They do care."