By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
TUPELO – Adrian Caldwell has not felt the brush of her father’s lips on her cheek since she was about 16 months old.
A 26-year-old staff sergeant with the 418th Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group, 8th Army Air Force, Leroy Leist left Adrian and her mother, Avis Taylor, in Lucedale, for Fort Thorpe Abbots, England, in October 1943.
Little more than four months later, his World War II bomber was shot down over the North Sea, and Leist and several of his fellow squad members’ bodies were never recovered.
For more than a decade, Adrian – strongly encouraged and supported by her husband, Robert Caldwell – has been on a mission to learn about the father she never knew, and to bring home his remains.
“My mother and family members never really talked about him when I was growing up,” she said. “I learned through an organization for children who lost a parent in war that many other families were the same, never talking about the person who was lost.”
Adrian’s mother, a young widow, remarried when Adrian was 4 years old, and out of respect for a stepfather who was good to her, Adrian seldom spoke of her father.
However, in 1999, a chance meeting in Charleston, S.C., set off a series of events.
Adrian and her husband met a man from Maastricht, Holland, which is near the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Holland, where her father’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing. To honor her family’s sacrifice, on his next trip to Holland the man sent her a photo collage of pictures from the Margraten cemetery.
“I got on the Internet and started researching more and more about his military service,” Adrian said.
She learned that when the B17-G “Flying Fortress” plane, serial number 42-37975, on which Leist was a tailgunner, went down on Feb. 4, 1944, his crew had already flown more than 15 missions in the short time he’d been assigned to Fort Thorpe Abbots.
She learned that the plane crashed in the North Sea off the coast of Walcheren Island, The Netherlands. Of the 10 crew members aboard, the bodies of three crew members washed ashore within a few days, and a fourth body in April 1944. Leist and five others, along with the plane, were never recovered.
Communicating with many different World War II survivor groups and writing to Leist’s hometown newspaper in Spencerville, Ohio, brought her even closer to her dad.
“I heard from two of his childhood friends who could tell me what he was like when he was young, what kind of personality he had,” Adrian said.
The more she came to know him, the stronger Adrian’s resolve grew to bring home his remains. She also found family members of the five other missing crew members to keep them abreast of her efforts.
Until two months ago it appeared the goal was within reach.
In 2009, a dredge boat near Rotterdam, Netherlands, hit the top of a plane, breaking loose a gun with serial numbers that traced back to Leist’s plane.
“Through all these years of searching, the Dutch Air Force salvage team and many government agencies have been wonderful, and would never accept a dime,” Adrian said. “I was assured as recently as February, with the procedure outlined to us at a Family Update Meeting in Baton Rouge, La., in minute detail how the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command would execute the mission to recover the remains of the six crewmen during an operation set for July 24-Sept. 4, 2011. In April we were told the mission had been canceled due to budget.”
The quest is far from over, however.
Time is critical, because further dredging planned for the area endangers the plane and the men entombed there.
Loyal supporters in The Netherlands continue to try narrowing the search area to give divers and salvage operators a smaller field to work.
And she has written U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee to appeal for any help he can give.
“This is not a single recovery,” she wrote. “There is potential to resolve six MIA cases in the completion of this search. We have built exceptional relationships with the Dutch government over the years of searching, and they have been extremely supportive. I doubt that they will commit in the future if this is how our government honors our fallen war heroes.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.