The 10 Lost Lives Of the Black Cat
Postage Stamp Honors B-24 Liberator Shot Down Just Short of WWII Victory
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Howard Goodner plunged out of the Black Cat, the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II, early on the morning of April 21, 1945. The B-24 Liberator was hit at 22,000 feet and broke into pieces.
Goodner, just 21, had no parachute. He came down in a free fall alongside bombs and oxygen tanks, spinning toward the Bavarian village of Scharmassing.
He landed in a field outside town, his body striking the earth so hard that it left a crater nearly six inches deep.
Maria Wittig, then 19, saw him there. He was athletic looking, fair-skinned, handsome. Long fingers.
"I can see him before me," she told an interviewer, a half century later, so clear was her memory. Shown a picture of the entire crew, she picked out Goodner immediately. "That's him," she said, her voice breaking.
The story of Goodner, the Black Cat and Maria Wittig is 60 years old. Other wars have come and gone, but the story has never really died, living on in the small shadows of the greatest generation.
Yesterday at a ceremony in Vienna, the Black Cat was immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp, that diminutive marker of historical American moments large and small.
Part of a series of 10 commemorative aviation stamps, this one shows the Black Cat still intact, still in flight, over the pastoral fields where it would crash. Nothing on the stamp denotes the plane's tragic end.
Today, when more than 60 million of the stamps go on sale at post offices across the nation, customers might assume the aircraft pictured on it is a generic model of a plane that has long since faded from use.
Only a few know its story of heartbreak, and how it has continued to reverberate in the lives of a few for so long.
Two of the 12 crewmen on board survived. The other 10 died upon impact, none having lived to be 30.
Their families were informed of their loss on May 8, V-E Day, when the rest of the nation rejoiced.
"The plane being shot down at the very end of the war -- it has haunted my family for so many years, and I finally went to Germany and found the crash site," says Thomas Childers, Goodner's nephew, whose 1995 book, "Wings of Morning," chronicled the story of the plane and its crew. "This farmer started scratching around in the dirt, and he pulled out a 50-caliber machine gun bullet. I was speechless. Every year when they plow, parts of the plane come to the surface."
"My family just never got over it," says Robert Layton in a telephone interview from Indianapolis yesterday. He is the cousin of the doomed plane's pilot, Richard "Dickie" Farrington.
"There's still a lot of resentment against the Axis side. I won't drive a German or Japanese car to this day. My aunt, Richard's mother, never could move out of her house until the day she died a few years ago.
"She wasn't mental, but she just couldn't get it out of her head that Dickie might have been in an institution all these years. She thought he'd come home and she would have moved. He'd never be able to find us."
If not for Childers's curiosity, the Black Cat's history would have almost certainly been lost. After his grandmother died in the small town of Cleveland, Tenn., in 1991, Childers went to clear out her house before it was sold.
He found a musty case of letters -- more than 300 -- that Howard Goodner, her son, had sent during the war. Childers was a historian of German culture and politics by then, and to find such a cache of original documents from World War II was striking.
He put down his academic research and took up the story of his uncle's flight crew. Among them, John Murphy, Jack Perella, Al Seraydarian, Goodner, Farrington -- they were young men from Brooklyn, Peoria, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, a cross-section of mid-century America.
In his research, he discovered that the Black Cat was the last bomber shot down over Germany before peace was declared, lending the story its tragic footnote. When he discovered that the crew wasn't originally scheduled to fly that day -- and that bad weather should have forced them to cancel before takeoff -- it only added to the pathos.
He wound up in Bavaria, where he met Wittig. He did not tell her that Goodner was his uncle, only that he was researching the history of the plane. When she tapped Goodner's picture, as the airman who came to earth in the field, he felt a tingle on the back of his neck.
The book's 1995 publication brought some critical acclaim but not much in the way of sales. It may have reached its most widespread moment in pop culture in 2002, when best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose was found to have plagiarized a passage from the book in "The Wild Blue," his history of B-24 bomber crews.
But the surviving members of the 466th Bomb Group, of which the Black Cat was a part, began petitioning the U.S. Postal Service to memorialize the Black Cat on a stamp. It was a long shot.
"We get 50,000 people a year who say, 'I've got the best idea ever for a stamp,' " says David Failor, executive director of stamp services for the U.S. Postal Service. "We actually release about 25 or 30 subjects for commemorative stamps each year. You can figure the math."
The ceremony yesterday marked the official release of the stamp's one-year run. Looking at the plane on the stamp -- the sunlight warm on its silver wings, a river glinting in the green fields below -- lends a bittersweet irony to one of Goodner's last letters home.
He was on a three-day break at a resort in Mundesley, on the British shore. There were dining rooms -- not chow lines -- soft beds, hot water, a golf course. He walked on the beach, played darts at a local pub. He loved it.
"Just hoping the war ends soon," he wrote to his family, "and we can all get home again."
The letter was dated April 8, 1945.
Howard Goodner had 13 days to live.
A review of Wings of Morning By Charles McCain
Wings of Morning: the Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down Over Germany in World War II by Thomas Childers is a good book and I was impressed the first time I read it a few years ago. The second time around, however, I wasn't as impressed but it's still a fine book. The author, who is one of the top German history scholars in the US, is an academic and, unfortunately, writes like one. Occasionally I had to hitch up the mules and plow through a chapter.
The author's uncle, Howard Goodner, was a radio operator aboard the Black Cat, a B-24 heavy bomber of the US 8th Airforce. His plane was shot down over Germany. Nothing unusual there. The US 8th Airforce took horrendous losses in planes and crew. But this particular bomber happened to be the last American bomber shot down over Germany. Two men were able to bail out, the others were not.
Of the remaining crew, all died - but two of the men who died, including the author's uncle, did not die when the plane crashed. They were thrown out of the plane somehow and fell to their deaths from an undetermined height. Crewmen could not wear their parachutes at their duty stations because their duty stations were so small there wasn't room. Sadly, these men did not have their parachutes on when they were thrown out of the plane. Howard Goodner's body hit the ground with such force that it made an eight inch indentation in the ground in the shape of a human body.
This book is not a history but a reconstruction of Uncle Howard's life in the service as well as an account of the author's long search to discover what exactly happened to the uncle he never knew. He recreated his late uncle's time in the US Army Air Force from letters, official records, and interviews with B-24 veterans, members from families of the other men killed, and older Germans who were children at the time and remembered the plane crashing. Woven into the narrative is how the author's family and the families of the other men who perished when the bomber went down had dealt with their losses.
Dealing with the loss of a loved one is brutal and in my own life experience it's not something you ever "get over". You come to acceptance but not "closure" - which is an annoying and stupid word to apply to such a situation. For the author's family and the families of the other men who perished, the emotional burden of loss was made all the greater because of the youth of each of the men. Howard, the author's uncle, was only 20.
Was it more painful for some families than others? Yes. But there is only one reason which could make the loss of one's son painful beyond endurance: that he have been the only child. In the families of two crewmen, that was the case. The parents never got over the loss.
That two men survived the crash, made the death of the others all the more bitter.
Narrative non-fiction is theoretically non-fiction written using the techniques of suspense fiction to keep the plot moving as well as keep the readers attention. I wish I could say the author did this successfully. Unfortunately I cannot. He went beyond using the techniques of fiction to actually fictionalizing parts of the narrative.
The most egregious example is this: he describes the last minutes of the final flight and states specifically where his uncle was sitting and what he was doing. Yet the author had no way of learning this information since of the two men who survived, one was the tail gunner and the other was the navigator. Because of the layout of the aircraft, these two men were at the extreme opposite ends of the plane. They could not have seen Howard Goodner.
Flak hit the port wing which broke off and the plane went into a tailspin. That fact was in a crew debriefing from a ship which saw the Black Cat get hit and and go down. But little else is known and the two men who survived remembered almost nothing. So I have to say that making up what people are thinking and doing when you don't actually know what they were doing or thinking, isn't kosher. There are a lot of instances like that so the book is neither fish nor fowl.
It's an OK read so I give it three stars but don't run through traffic to buy a copy.
Prof. Thomas Childers is the Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania