BELLEVILLE, Ill. — For nearly 69 years, Frances Corona has wondered how her brother met his fate in World War II.
She knew a Shiloh man, Vic Morris, was a member of her brother's crew on the B-29 named "Danny-Mite" which was shot down over Tokyo on May 24, 1945. What she's been desperate to know for all these years is how her sibling, Sgt. Andrew Kierein, died, what his last days we like and what happened to his body.
The bomber, the latest model of the B-29, was equipped with radar and serving as pathfinder on a mission to bomb Tokyo.
"It was going to be a milk run," Morris said. "It was overcast and we figured the anti-aircraft gunners wouldn't be able to see us. But we broke out into the clear just before we reached the target and they let us have it."
The ferocious flak knocked out one of Danny-Mite's engines and then another. When the electrical system burned out, the order was given to bail out. Morris, who was the flight engineer and sat in a seat behind the cockpit but in front of the bomb bay, headed toward the rear of the plane to tell everyone to get out. But the fire burning in the tunnel over the bomb bay was too intense to get through. Morris turned around and saw the plane's commander and co-pilot bailing out and figured he better get out, too.
Just as Morris tried to make his escape through the hatch over the front landing gear, which was only halfway down because it had to be hand cranked with the power out, a wing ripped off the burning plane and Morris was flung out into the sky. He floated to earth too busy trying to avoid the burning wing falling beside him as well as machine gun fire from enemy fighters to see how many parachutists got out of Danny-Mite.
Morris ended up sitting out the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where he eventually learned two other members of the crew were in captivity. He found out later that another landed in Tokyo Bay and was picked up by the U.S. Navy. Seven members of the 11-man crew, including everyone stationed in the back of the plane and the navigator who had gone to the rear to help out when the radar operator had problems, were killed.
Morris said he's ached to talk to the families of his crew members who didn't survive for each day of the 69 years since their plane was shot down. But he's carried survivor's guilt all this time and couldn't bring himself to face them or the emotions reliving that horrific day would uncover.
"I contacted Vic Morris about 20 years ago, briefly, and he couldn't bring himself to talk about it," Corona said. "Then I talked to him when (the 2008 Our War) story about him came out in the News-Democrat and he still wasn't ready."
But now Morris is finally able to bring himself to open up about the horror of being shot down. He agreed to meet with Corona in person in the next week.
"He's told me a lot of things but I have a more questions," Corona, who lives in the northern Illinois town of St. Charles, said of their most recent phone call and why she decided to visit Morris in person. "I wanted to wait until summer. But Victor told me that might be too late, I better come now. I'm 88 and he's 93. We kind of live day-to-day.
Morris said he has always wondered why he was saved while other members of his crew died.
"I think about them and pray for them every single day," Morris said of his crew members. "I don't know why I was allowed to live and they lost their lives. I wish I could have done something."
After seven decades, it was something Corona said that finally lifted Morris' burden of guilt.
"He feels guilty because he lived," Corona said. "I told him that wasn't his choice. It was God's choice. We have to worry about today, not what happened 70 years ago."
Morris' son, also named Vic Morris, said Corona's words gave his father an incredible lift.
While the elder Morris said that his nightmares about being shot down and spending six months in a Japanese POW camp have faded away over the decades, the younger Morris said he believes his father has suffered from post traumatic stress disorder his entire life. He said he was glad to see his father get some relief after all these years.
Corona said she knew it was going to be tough for everyone. But she thinks they'll all feel better after the get together.
"It's sad for me because it brings back a lot of memories," Corona said. "But I need to know about my brother."
While he's finally ready to talk, Morris said he wishes he knew more about what happened to his crew. He said during the last days of World War II, he heard one rumor that when the wreckage of Danny-Mite was found, that the seven lost crew members were still at their stations and another rumor that seven members of a B-29 crew were found tied together and buried in a mass grave near where Danny-Mite went down.
"I'm as anxious to find out what happened to them as the rest of the crew members' families," Morris said. "But I am going to do my best to sit down and explain what happened that night."