WWII vet was part of top-secret unit involved with espionage in Europe
By BONNIE L. COOK | Philly.com (Tribune News Service) | Published: June 17, 2017
Earl G. Russell, 92, of Havertown, a retired structural engineer and decorated Army Air Forces veteran whose secret missions aided the resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, died Tuesday, June 13, of cardiac arrest at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
Mr. Russell served from April 1943 to October 1945, when he was honorably discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.
In 1944, he deployed as an armorer and gunner with the Carpetbaggers, a top-secret unit that supported the espionage actions of the Office of Strategic Service, the forerunner to the CIA. The crews volunteered for the missions.
In the role of armorer, he made sure that bombs and guns aboard the aircraft were in working order. As a tail gunner, he manned a machine gun from the rear of the plane.
Mr. Russell flew out of an air base north of London, dropping supplies and secret agents through a metal chute called a Joe hole to resistance groups such as the French Underground. The B-24 bombers were painted black to avoid detection at night as they swooped in low, behind enemy lines.
The missions were harrowing and demanded a high degree of skill and nerve from crew members, wrote military author Dwight Jon Zimmerman on the website DefenseMediaNetwork in September 2014.
“When the aircraft reached its drop-off site, a green light would flash, and the agent, a static line attached to his parachute, would slide down the Joe hole and parachute into the darkness,” Zimmerman wrote.
Mr. Russell kept watch for enemy fire. Until recent years, he didn’t mention his wartime experiences.
“All I remember was a photograph of him as a tail gunner, kneeling in front of a B-24,” said his son Don Russell. “Years later, we learned he was actually flying missions under the direction of the OSS. … They told him never to tell anyone what he’d done.”
According to his military records, Mr. Russell flew seven secret missions. For meritorious achievement while in flight, he was awarded the Air Medal. He also was given the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign ribbon with five bronze stars.
Two years ago, Mr. Russell received word that France had named him a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor for his role in liberating the country. On May 20, 2015, while his family looked on, the French consulate presented the award during a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington.
“It was amazing to see the veterans there, all talking to each other,” his son said. “I don’t remember him crying, but I know the rest of us did.”
Born in West Philadelphia, Mr. Russell graduated from Overbrook High School. After the war, he married Barbara Pierucci. The couple settled in Southwest Philadelphia before moving in the late 1950s to Havertown to rear their five children. He attended night classes at Drexel Institute of Technology and earned a degree in civil engineering
Mr. Russell spent four decades as a structural engineer, a sub-specialty within the field of civil engineering that focuses on the ability of structures to withstand stress.
He was employed by several engineering companies before joining the Philadelphia architectural firm of Day & Zimmermann in 1972. He helped design many churches and commercial buildings, including the Pepperidge Farm plant in northern Lancaster County. When he retired in 1992, Mr. Russell formed a home-based consulting business.
His son said he had a reputation for being a meticulous worker. “Since his passing, his former colleagues at Day & Zimmermann have recounted stories of the exacting details of his designs,” his son said. “Even after the invention of electronic calculators, he regularly used a pocket slide rule for quick calculations.”
Mr. Russell served as a volunteer with numerous organizations, including the Boy Scouts. Following in the footsteps of his father, also named Earl, Mr. Russell served for more than 40 years as treasurer of what is now New Hope Christian Church in Broomall.
He was a member of the board of trustees at Eastern University and Palmer Theological Seminary, in St. Davids, for more than 50 years. The two are affiliated. While in his 80s, Mr. Russell did the engineering work on the control room to Eastern’s Bradstreet Observatory, and the room was named in his honor.
“Eastern was privileged to know and love a man whose own affection knew as few bounds, as did his courage and generosity,” said Robert G. Duffett, the university’s president. “We will miss him very much.”
Besides his wife and son, Mr. Russell is survived by children Barbara Wells, Brenda C., Earl Jr., and Blaine Q.; two grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. A grandson, two sisters, and a brother died earlier.
A 10 a.m. visitation will be followed by an 11 a.m. memorial service Saturday, June 17, at New Hope Christian Church, 551 Paxon Hollow Rd., Broomall. Burial is private.
Memorial donations may be made to Eastern University or Palmer Theological Seminary, both at 1300 Eagle Rd., St. Davids, Pa. 19087.
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