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Author's journey connects her with Maine veteran and World War II pilot

A vintage B-17 takes off Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, at Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport for a media tour before flights for the public.

WILL DICKEY, FLORIDA TIMES-UNION/TNS

By SCOTT THISTLE | Portland Press Herald | Published: January 1, 2021

(Tribune News Service) -- Roger Sundin shrugs off any notion that he's a hero. But if it weren't for Sundin, Loretto Thompson doubts she or any of her five siblings would ever have been born.

Sundin was a 23-year-old pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps in May 1945 when he ditched "Heavy Date," a B-17 Flying Fortress, into the North Sea after one of the bomber's engines caught fire on a training mission. Many such episodes ended in tragedy, but thanks to Sundin's skill, all six members of the crew — including Thompson's father, Frank — survived.

"You have to land it in the water just like you would land it on the runway," said Sundin, 97, noting he can still remember his co-pilot yelling out the plane's air speed, part of the "ditching" procedure, as they hit the water.

The four-engine bomber with a wingspan of 104 feet was moving at 112 mph.

While having to ditch a disabled plane in water wasn't uncommon, it was unusual for all of the crew members to emerge unscathed.

"It's the one exercise in flying the pilot never gets a chance to rehearse," said Sundin, who lives at the Barron Center in Portland. "You either do it correctly or you crash." Sundin does acknowledge that for a ditching procedure, "the landing was perfect."

The incident occurred on May 25, 1945. That was 17 days after the war was officially over in Europe, but the crew, minus the gunners, was in training, practicing to bring the big war birds back to the United States.

Sundin is among the just under 325,000 remaining veterans of World War II. More than 16 million Americans served in the war, but time — and now COVID-19 — has steadily thinned their ranks. In 2019, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that 245 World War II veterans would die every day. Using an actuarial projection, the VA estimated that there would be just 60,000 surviving veterans from the war by 2024 and none by 2043.

COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities and veterans homes across the country have likely accelerated the pace of that loss. Maine, too, has lost World War II veterans, like James Paras and others, to the virus due to outbreaks at veterans homes.

Thompson said she wants more people to learn the stories of the "everyday soldiers" of the war like Sundin and her father, especially when they can still be told first hand.

All six crew members on the B-17 that set down in the sea that day in 1945 had served together in numerous bombing runs over German and France in the final month of the war. Sundin's crew also dropped emergency food rations to the people of the Netherlands as part of Operation Chowhound in their two final combat missions that May.

Thompson, an author from Niagara Falls, New York, discovered Sundin as she worked to transcribe more than 500 letters her father had written to his mother, his brother and his dog, Mike, during his time in the Army Air Corps.

Thompson found her father's letters in a box in the basement of her mother's home more than 50 years after her father, who became a doctor after the war, had died from an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 44 in 1965. Thompson was just 4 years old at the time.

She never really knew her father, and her mother would go on to remarry, and her stepfather became the person she knew as "Dad," she said. But she and her siblings always wondered about their biological father and what he was like.

The letters are the basis of her 2019 book, "An Unexpected Coddiwomple," which she credits Sundin and his late wife, Gloria Sundin, with helping her write. The book also draws on other historical records, including mission reports from the flights Sundin and his crew flew.

Thompson said Gloria Sundin, who died in November at 95, helped her communicate with Roger Sundin and also critiqued parts of the book, making suggested changes as she pulled the story together.

The nonfiction work alternates between the letters and the present as Thompson visits the various places her father was stationed both in the U.S. and the United Kingdom during the war. "Coddiwomple" is British slang for travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination.

She said without the Roger Sundin's help, his sharp recollections and technical knowledge of the B-17, she would not have been able to complete her book. In his letters, her father frequently mentioned Sundin and spoke highly of him. A tall man of Swedish heritage, he was known to his crew as "Big Sundin," and her father referred to him that way in his letters.

Thompson hopes her book will help Sundin be recognized for the hero he is, noting that his skills as a pilot kept her father alive.

"If it wasn't for him, none of us would be here today," she said of Sundin, who started an auto parts store after the war.

The discovery of her father's letters, she said, set her on an intentional journey to an unknown destinations and in the process she learned who he was.

"Frank had a purpose, he didn't know where he was going but he went," Thompson said. "For me I had a purpose too, I wanted to know more about my father but had no idea where these letters would take me."

Part of that journey took her to Maine, where she met Roger and Gloria Sundin and their family. The Sundins moved to Kennebunk in 1966. They later relocated to Springvale, before moving to the Barron Center early in 2020.

Sundin said he knew Frank Thompson wrote a lot of letters, but he couldn't know that would result in a connection to Thompson's daughter and a revisiting of the B-17's ditching more than 70 years after it happened.

"It was important to him to get communications back to his family and he did that," Sundin said. He also said the letters gave him a clearer picture of his former crew member.

"We got to know Frank, the father, much more by also knowing (Loretto) too," Sundin said.
    
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