WWII B-17 gunner revisits England, dies at Battle of Britain Bunker
By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS | Washington Post | Published: May 26, 2016
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Melvin Rector long carried England in his heart after he helped defend it during World War II, but 70 years passed without him stepping foot back in the country.
The 94-year-old finally decided to leave his home in Barefoot Bay, Fla., to visit Britain earlier this month. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans conducts a travel program through which interested parties can visit certain sites of the war. He signed up for one, in hopes of visiting RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk.
He served there with the 96th Bomb Group in 1945 as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, flying eight combat missions over Germany during the spring of the war's final year. On four of these missions, his plane came under heavy fire. One almost proved catastrophic, and the plane returned to base with holes dotting its wings.
One of the aircraft on which he served as a gunner was the Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to complete its tour by flying 25 missions with its crew intact. It went on to have a post-war career raising morale and money for the U.S. Army. Writes historian John Buescher of the warplane:
"After both crew and plane completed their respective 25th mission, the crew received the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. They were then ordered in June to fly the Memphis Belle back to the United States for a cross-country tour, the aim of which was to increase morale back home and to sell War Bonds. . . . When the Memphis Belle completed its tour (the first heavy bomber to do so), it was a joyful event, not only for the crew, but also for the entire air command and the American public."
The B-17 Flying Fortress garnered such attention that not one but two films were made about it: a documentary in 1944 and an eponymously titled drama in 1990, starring John Lithgow, Matthew Modine and Harry Connick, Jr.
Rector was excited for his return to the place that made this great plane famous.
"He planned it for like the last six months," Darlene O'Donnell, Rector's stepdaughter, told Florida Today of the trip. "He couldn't wait to go."
On Rector's long flight over the Atlantic, the pilot of his American Airlines flight summoned him to the cockpit so the two could take a photograph together. "The flight attendant stopped us and said, 'Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you,'" Susan Jowers told Florida Today.
She had become almost a daughter to Rector after serving as his guardian during a 2011 Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C., and she accompanied him on this tour.
On May 6, Rector stepped foot on British soil for the first time in 71 years. The group first visited RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon.
Rector toured Battle of Britain Bunker, an underground command center where fighter airplane operations were directed during D-Day. After climbing back into the sunlight, he told Jowers he felt dizzy. She grabbed one of his arms, and a stranger grabbed the other.
There, just outside the bunker where Winston Churchill famously said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," Rector died quietly.
"He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done," Jowers said.
Sandy Vavruich, Rector's daughter, said it's how he would have liked to pass on, even though he sadly never did make it to RAF Snetterton Heath.
"He couldn't have asked for a better way to go," she told Florida Today. "It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes, and he passed away between them."
Before repatriating his remains to the United States, a small service for the fallen hero was planned in Britain. It did not remain a small service.
"They just wanted something very simple. And when I found a little bit of background out about Melvin, there was no way we were going to just give him a very simple service," Neil Sherry, the British funeral director in charge of Rector's service, told ITV London News. "I wanted it to be as special as possible."
Though Jowers expected no more than four people, word of Rector's war record reached the American and British Armed Forces. The American Embassy donated a flag to drape over his coffin, and the room filled with servicemen and women and London historians who had never met Rector but wanted to pay their respects to their spiritual brother in arms.
One of them was U.S. Army Maj. Leif Purcell. He may not have known Rector, but he attended the funeral on May 18.
"Representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army I saw here was phenomenal," Purcell told ITV London News. "I was expecting just to see myself and maybe two or three other U.S. service members and a priest, and that was it. So it was very delightful to see."
Speaking to the congregation, one U.S. serviceman said, "I do know of his sacrifice and his family's sacrifice, so you do him and his family a great honor by being here today."
Jowers was pleased.
"He certainly got a beautiful send-off," Jowers told Florida Today. "People everywhere, from Cambridge to London, heard his story."
Vavruich, who lives in Gloversville, N.Y., was also touched by the outpouring of respect. She, along with Rector's five other children, will have the opportunity to pay their respects on June 9 at First Baptist Church of Barefoot Bay. Rector's remains were repatriated to the U.S. on Tuesday.
"He completed his final mission," Jowers said.