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We Regret to Inform You: Remembering the flyboys

Editor's note: This is the fifth installment of a series of stories about Ashland residents who lost their lives in military service during World War II. It continues on Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

Lee E. O’Harra, Ashland High Class of 1938, was an inveterate doodler who kept a scrapbook filled with his drawings of all the aircraft and carriers of the time. World War II gave him the chance to live his dream of being a pilot. As part of the Marine Base Defense Aircraft Group 44 out of Mojave, Calif., a training center for squadrons slated for assignments aboard aircraft carriers, 1st Lt. O’Harra was assigned to pilot the FM-1 Wildcat, a single-seat fighter aircraft.

On Nov. 1, 1943, at 5:40 p.m., Lee was participating in a mock combat mission 8 miles from the base over the desert. According to Capt. Oscar Bate, whom Lee was flying against: “When we were about 500 yards apart, I pulled up to show him (Lee) that even though he had the altitude advantage, I could bring to bear my guns in a head on run as well as he could his. I think he finally tried to pull above me but his plane hit on top of mine.”

Bailing out of his damaged plane, Capt. Bate was able to open his chute at 1,500 feet and survived with only cuts and bruises. Tragically, Lee’s aircraft crashed and caught fire about a half-mile away.

In an official photograph taken in late October 1943, Lee stands in his dark leather flight jacket and crisp garrison cap looking resolutely into the camera. Just a month later, his close friend, Lt. William Erdman, had the heartbreaking duty of escorting Lee’s body back to Ashland for burial.

Lee’s plans had been always been big — once he returned home, he had planned to propose to his girlfriend and already had picked out her engagement ring. Instead, his grief-stricken parents had to hang a large gold star in the window of their living room overlooking North Main Street where their son used to play the piano for his friends.

Residents also mourned the senseless loss of Aviation Cadet Bennett “Bud” C. Provost, a good-looking, sandy-haired young man who, when he wasn’t playing on the Grizzly football, basketball and baseball teams, helped at his family’s store. At Ashland High School, he was school president and, after graduation, was set to major in engineering at Stanford.

Bud was sent to Monmouth College in Illinois for Naval Flight Preparation School before being stationed at the Alameda Naval Training Base in California. On May 21, 1944, he was waiting on the tarmac to board his plane when the machine gun on another aircraft taxiing into position for takeoff jammed. It fired a hail of bullets, killing Bud instantly and cutting short a life filled with such promise.

In an additional heartbreak, Bud’s grandmother, Bessie Carlton, also of Ashland, died of a stroke upon being told of her grandson’s death. Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland was filled to overflowing with friends and family who came to pay their respects at the double funeral. Both Bud and his grandmother were laid to rest in Mountain View Cemetery in Ashland.

Staff Sgt. John W. De Mille, who grew up on Granite Street, was a B-17 aerial gunner with the 301st Bombardment Squadron, 352nd Bomb Group. In September 1942, his squadron entered into combat in France and in Sicily, Sardinia, and Tunisia, where they bombed docks, shipping facilities, military bases, and railroad yards. On April 6, 1943, they attacked a convoy of merchant ships off Bizerte, Tunisia, destroying the transportation network for supplies essential to the Axis defense. They were credited with shooting down seven enemy aircraft. The following month, flying in a plane nicknamed “O’Reilly’s Daughter” after the popular Army Air Force drinking song, John and his crew were the lead aircraft over the left coast of Sicily. Their plane exploded as it approached the bomb run — official reports said it had received a burst of flak from another squadron’s aircraft directly into its open bomb bay.

Marjorie O’Harra, sister-in-law of casualty Lee O’Harra, remembers the heartbreaking sight of John’s father, Roy, a sign painter by trade, climbing up his ladder to paint a gold star next to his son’s name on the Ashland Roll of Honor.

Ashland’s Class of 1941 lost Staff Sgt. Trenton T. Tucker, known as Tad, a gunner with the 330th Bombardment Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (Heavy). His B-24 airplane, nicknamed Old Hickory, was bound for Braunschweig, Germany, on April 8, 1944, when one of its bombs armed itself automatically but failed to drop. The pilot pulled out of formation just before the bomb went off and blew out one of Old Hickory’s bomb bay doors. The crippled aircraft limped along until it was hit over the Zuider Zee by heavy anti-aircraft fire from a Luftwaffe FW-190A. A few seconds later, it exploded.

Six crew members bailed out and were taken as prisoners of war (POWs). Three more, including Tad, lost their lives. Tad made it out, but tragically, his parachute didn’t open. He died after impacting the ground.

Today, on the side of a country road near the town of Nagele in the Netherlands, a local organization has placed a signpost affixed with the simple red metal outline of a plane. Overlooking a peaceful swathe of green farmland, it quietly stands sentry over the spot where Old Hickory went down.

Next week: Remembering 2nd Lt. Fred Shere: Heroically leading a mission gone wrong.