KALISPELL, Mont. — It has been 70 years to the day since U.S. Army Air Corps Gunner Robert Needham parachuted out of a burning World War II bomber — and was never heard from again.
Tom Needham, 80, of Somers, was not quite 11 years old when his big brother disappeared from his life. But he has spent a lifetime keeping Robert’s memory alive.
An exhibit of photographs, news clippings and memorabilia of Robert Needham’s life is preserved in a display at the Miracle of America Museum in Polson. Tom wears a ring his older brother made from a piece of copper pipe.
The story of Robert’s military service and his heroic last minutes is one Tom knows well. It doesn’t seem like 70 years have passed since that fateful day, but time hasn’t diminished the details.
As a 19-year-old Montana hunter and a “crack marksman,” Robert had been specially selected by his commanding officer, Col. A.J. “Sox” Stocking, to be the “top gun” of the 409th Bombardment Group, Tom recalled.
The group supported ground forces during the Battle of Normandy by hitting railroad lines, bridges, gun batteries and communication centers.
“His sole responsibility was to keep watch over the commander’s safety at all times as they would soon be leading the entire group of 164 plans with 372 crewmen into danger as they bombed and strafed their way into France and Germany,” he said.
Robert had seen lots of action during his year and a half in the Air Corps.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was in his command position of the 409th when he suffered flack wounds to his face. He spent the rest of that month recovering, and by July 4 Robert and his buddies were granted a one-day leave before heading back to their posts. Among Robert’s buddies was Flathead High School 1940 graduate Gordon Dukleth of Kalispell, Tom noted.
July 5, 1944, was a day of heavy rain and intermittent cloud cover.
“Many of the bombers were lost in a sky near full of flack explosions and high-powered howitzer shelling and other ground fire,” Tom said.
The captain’s lead plane suddenly took a howitzer shell near the belly of the aircraft. Robert and his navigator reacted quickly to the fire and remained aboard, fighting the blaze as it intensified. When all of the extinguishers had been exhausted and the fire was still raging, the two were forced to parachute out of the plane.
Beneath the heavy cloud cover was the roiling water of the English Channel.
With communication cut off, the commander, still in the cockpit, had no idea his crew had been forced to bail out. He was able to crash-land the damaged aircraft and survived without injury, Tom said.
“He credited his two-man crew with his survival [because their heroic efforts] extended the plane’s flight worthiness and they were able to keep it in the air longer, thus getting him back to England unharmed,” he said.
Gunner Needham and his navigator weren’t the only soldiers being tossed around by the rough water in the English Channel that day. The navigator and many others were rescued, but Robert was not found.
After the war, when Tom was attending a military reunion on behalf of his brother, he met Col. Stocking and learned that the navigator had briefly seen his brother in the water.
“With a giant wave seemingly headed to overtake him, [the navigator] saw the sudden silhouette [of Robert] against the fast-fading horizon,” Tom said. “It was just one quick glimpse of Robert himself, as they came face to face, both of them startled at the one final glimpse of each other.”
Robert received two Purple Hearts for his war efforts and earned an air medal with four oak-leaf clusters. A tribute letter signed by President Harry Truman and sent to his parents, Alton and Helen Needham, is among the items displayed in his honor at the Miracle of America Museum.