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Family will go to where WWII pilot went down

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (MCT) — Margaret Thomas remembers saying goodbye to her older brother, Jerome, for the last time.

She stood on the sofa, and he gave her a kiss. She wiped it off. She was 10 years old, after all, and didn't want to be kissed by anyone.

That was more than 70 years ago.

This week, Thomas, her sister and other members of their family are traveling to a farm in Saint-Cyr-la-Rosiere, France, where the plane Jerome was piloting was shot down Aug. 9, 1944, killing him and two crew members.

A monument is being erected by a local French organization for the plane's pilot and crew. It will be the first time Thomas has visited the place where her brother perished.

The experience has brought back a lot of memories for Thomas, who's now 81 and living in St. Cloud.

Jerome Gross was much older, but he treated his little sister Margaret with kindness, taking her places and showering her with attention. She called him "Bum," a reference to his habit of running away as a youngster.

Gross graduated from Technical High School in 1940. He attended St. Cloud State Teachers College but joined the service before graduating — during the height of World War II.

He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1942 and rose to the rank of first lieutenant. His skillful piloting of B-26 Marauder bombers earned him several commendations.

On Aug. 9, 1944, Gross was piloting a plane to bomb a railroad bridge and embankment. Afterward, the plane was returning to England when it was hit by heavy fire near Dreux, France.

Gross suffered a serious chest wound. A crew member took control of the plane and tried to bring it back to Allied territory. But the plane crashed into an orchard and caught fire.

Three of the men, including Gross, died. The other three were captured by the Germans and later rescued by the French Underground.

Gross was buried in a cemetery in France. In 1949, his body was returned to Minnesota for burial at Fort Snelling.

For months, his family was told he was missing in action. Thomas recalls the day the telegram arrived notifying the family of Jerome's death.

"I remember the neighbors coming over," she said. "Everyone was crying. I couldn't quite grasp what was going on. As time when on, I knew that he was never coming back."

Gross left behind a wife, Helen, who gave birth to their son, Jerome Jr., two weeks later.

About six months ago, Thomas' brother received a phone call from a nonprofit organization called the Lacey-Davis Foundation, a California-based group that tracks families of fallen World War II soldiers and helps arrange for them to attend overseas ceremonies in their loved ones' honor.

At first, Thomas' brother thought it was a joke. Then, her sister got a similar call.

"That's when we really realized that this was really going to happen," she said.

Thomas is traveling with two of her sons; her sister, Mary Lou Stang of Sartell; and three of Stang's children.

Plans called for them to leave for France on Tuesday and attend a monument dedication Saturday. The following day, they will be taken to the location of the crash.

Thomas admits to being a bit nervous about the trip, although she's no stranger to travel. Two decades ago when she was nearly 60, Thomas and her sisters backpacked around Germany and France, including a visit to the beaches at Normandy where the Allied invasion of Europe began.

But this trip will be much different.

"You know, it's been what, (72) years," she said. "And of course, you never get over a death of your family member. It's kind of scary, and yet it's really neat what they're doing."

The Lacey-Davis Foundation works with several French organizations that locate old crash sites, recover and catalog artifacts, and erect monuments.

The foundation has helped contact about 45 families and arrange for them to attend the dedication of the monuments, said Robert Stuard, the foundation's president.

"When we get to see families go over, it delights all of us," he said.

For many families, attending the dedication is a way to find peace and answers to a long-ago tragedy, Stuard said.

"It's like, to me, a final closing," he said. "There's always reservations in one's mind about their loved one. So this helps."

Follow Kirsti Marohn on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

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©2014 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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