Mystery behind WWII fighter ace’s final mission from Boxted Airfield
- Credit: Contributed
Aviation author Bruce Henderson grew up believing in heroes. For him, they were always pilots, none more so than his uncle Robert Silva whose suitcase is the most intriguing and perhaps most tragic exhibit at Boxted Airfield Musuem. He sharese his part in completing Robert’s final mission decades after his death.
Second Lieutenant Robert G Silva’s name is one of 120 on the memorial board at Boxted Airfield. Among the thousands who served there during the Second World War, he was one of a generation of young men who died far before their time far from home.
His suitcase, medals, insignias, some of the 100 touching letters he wrote to his family and the now yellowed and wrinkled telegram the loved ones of serving personnel never want to receive now rest at the onsite museum thanks to the nephew he never knew but inspired all the same.
Born the year after the war ended, Bruce Henderson’s fondest childhood memories are of exploring his grandmother Daisy’s rambling home in Alameda, California.
“I was no more than eight or nine when I first opened a brown-striped suitcase kept in a closet. It was a boy’s treasure trove... the leather-trimmed goggles, a helmet of soft leather with padded chamois lining, leather gloves, a silk scarf, silver aviator wings and a pocket-sized address book with, tucked inside the back flap, a stick of hard, unchewable, Dentyne gum.
“My grandmother always had a new pack of gum waiting for me whenever I arrived. Despite the many brands in the world it was always Dentyne. I never knew why until that moment.”
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There were also two padded boxes each containing a tiny, folded, US flag atop a shiny military decoration. One was the Air Medal, awarded for “heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight”, with a swooping eagle clutching a lightning bolt in each talon. The other, the Purple Heart which is given to members of the military wounded or killed in action.
“Throughout the years I would regularly slip into the middle bedroom and open the suitcase. In time, I read all the letters she kept inside - more than 100 of Bob’s letters home from his earliest days in army flight training until his last letter written three days before his final mission. On the front of that envelope my grandmother wrote she had received it on March 13, 1944 and added ‘my last letter from my darling’.”
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Robert arrived at Boxted Airfield, in Langham, Colchester, in 1943, carrying that same suitcase, which he used during his civilian pilot training at the College of the Pacific before joining the Army Air Corps as a 22-year-old cadet the summer before.
Richard Turner, chairman of Boxted Airfield Historical Group, which established and now runs the museum, says not much was known about the young American.
His commanding officer Colonel Jack T Bradley - who’d finish the war as one of the top P-51 aces with 15 confirmed aerial kills - described him as everyone’s friend and never one to lose his cheerfulness.
Robert’s address book revealed he loved to dance, striking up a friendship with an Eileen from Colchester whose husband was abroad with the artillery. When the American airforce arrived, they’d sent invitations to large businesses looking for ladies to partner with at dances at hotels like The Red Lion and George Hotel. She often went with her friends.
“It was a bit of a detective job tracking her down,” recalls Richard.
“She never went to any on the airbases but eventually met Robert, a very good dancer and he was also the same height, which was crucial. There was no relationship but they became good friends. She didn’t know what happened to Robert until I told her, she just realised she never saw him at dances any more.”
In that last letter, Robert wrote of having another medal to his credit and maybe earning his Distinguished Flying Cross before adding he’d better not cross his bridges until he got to them and getting some sleep before another “date in the clouds with Jerry”.
His self-warning was tragically prophetic. Three days later his P-51-B Mustang - named Hi-Ho Silva, after the Lone Ranger’s call to his horse on the popular radio show - dropped out of formation at 22,000ft in a heavy overcast above the North Sea. Neither were ever found.
His squadron - the 353rd Fighter Squadron of the 354th Fighter Group, which finished the war as the highest-scoring fighter squadron in the European theatre, with 295 air victories - had taken off from Boxted that morning to escort B-17 Flying Fortresses on the first daylight bombing raid over Berlin.
Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, once told his senior officers “when I see a mustang over Berlin I’ll know the war is over”.
He was right. That daring mission, involving hundreds of Allied bombers and fighters, marked a turning point in the war. Bombing runs flew day and night over the heartland of Germany until the country’s unconditional surrender 17 months later.
It was historic for another reason. With the loss of 23 fighters, most due to the bad weather rather than the enemy, it was to be the costliest day of the war for US fighter squadrons in the skies over Europe.
Exactly how Robert - whose promotion to First Lieutenant came through a few days after the raid - died isn’t clear.
Some say his plane spun out of control shortly after take-off and he never reached Berlin. Col Bradley wrote of several pilots losing control of their aircraft due to severe turbulence as the squadron climbed through the clouds near the French coast. He hoped Bob, as he was known to his fellow fliers, was among those taken as prisoners of war.
Robert’s wingman David B O’Hara later told the family how his friend had problems with his plane’s oxygen system, forcing him to return to Boxted shortly after take-off for repair before joining the Berlin-bound aerial armada. O’Hara thought the problem may have re-occured on the flight back, causing Robert to lose conciousness.
He’d watched his plane swing side to side like a pendulum. By the time he regained control of his own plane, Robert was gone.
Although Bruce’s grandmother had three other children - including Bruce’s mother - it was no secret her youngest, to whom she gave birth in the front bedroom 24 years before his death, was special.
“My spirited and indomitable grandmother, who chased fire engines in her bright red 1952 Chevy couple and at Christmas gave the best gifts under the tree lived to 101 but not once did I see her speak about her lost son without her eyes brimming with tears.
“For my family, whose other menfolk returned from war unscathed, it began and ended with Bob. By all accounts he was our best, most likeable and most promising. Everyone could only speculate, ‘what would he have done with his life?’ He was irreplaceable and his loss unfathomable.”
Bruce remembers one day in fifth grade fantasing his uncle might still be alive somewhere. It was a dream he secretly clung to for years and only reluctantly outgrew.
Tracing the line from Germany to England with his fingertip in an old geography book handed out by his teacher, he saw where the North Sea narrowed between landmasses. It looked like Robert couldn’t have gone down very far from a coastline. If he had parachuted from his plane, could he have washed up in Europe?
“Suppose he was injured and unable to talk? What if had amnesia and without any memory of his past, settled in a small village after the war? I looked again at the map, studying the possibilities. It soon became clear what I must do. When I grew up, I would search for my lost uncle and somewhere, somehow, bring him home to my grandmother. I also very much wanted to find him for myself, so I could have the uncle I had never known.”
That, in a way, is what he did. Decades since finding that suitcase, which he inherited on his grandmother’s death, Bruce and his wife Laura visited Boxted Airfield Museum and knew what he had to do.
“My family never had anywhere to go to mourn him. All we ever had was his suitcase and its contents. They were precious to me, and yes, it would have been difficult sending them anywhere else.
“Meeting Richard and Anne, seeing the wonderful work they’re doing preserving the airfield and the history surrounding it, I decided they should have the suitcase and and whatever else they wished to display. I feel the uncle I never knew would’ve liked that. After Richard sent me pictures of the suitcase, etc in the display case, I really felt as if I had somehow brought Bob back from his last mission.”
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