Letters Home – A Boyle County Story

As some of you may already know, I am in the middle of moving…again. Right?

Also, my husband and I are the recipients of the Coomer family ephemera, of which there is quite a bounty. Among this ephemera is a World War II letter home. But this one is a little different. It was written to my father-in-law (who was 9 years old in 1944) and his brother by Tech Sergeant Jack G. Durham of the 450th Bomb Group, 723rd Squadron, Army Air Corp. He is no relation, but his letter is very interesting.

T/Sgt Jack G. Durham, 19061974
450th Bomb Gp, 723 Sq. APO #520
c/o Postmaster, New York, N.Y.

Hugh & John Coomer
336 North Fifth Street
Danville, Kentucky

Envelop stamped with “Passed by Army Examiner 27407 (stamped) Signed Donald L. White [illegible] A.C.”

Post dated U.S. Army Postal Office A.P.O.  769 Sep 24 1944. Pre-stamped 6c U.S. Postage Via Air Mail envelope

Somewhere In Italy
September 22, 1944

Dear Hugh & Johnny,

I received your nice letter about a week ago with the good luck charm and certainly did appreciate both.  Sorry I haven’t written sooner but have been a little busy.  Our crew has been busy on days we aren’t flying building our “home” for the winter, which consists of a concrete floor and a wooden framework over which we have a tent for a roof about 16 feet square.  We built the sides about three feet up, so we should be fairly well protected against the rains, which are supposed to be pretty bad.

I have been wearing the shamrock you sent me on the chain with my dog tags, so you see your good luck shall be with me always.  It has worked too, for we’ve been on six combat missions against the Germans and non o jus have been hurt.  Some of our raids, one in particular, to Vienna were especially rough.  By rough I mean we flew through heavy flack (commonly known as ack-ack) and it can bounce you around quite a bit but these good old B-24’s wallow right on through, “lay their eggs”, and get back home.  Enemy fighters haven’t given us any trouble but those Heinnies can really throw up that flack.

I suppose you boys were glad to start back to school again – or were you?  Be sure and study hard and bring home that report card with all “A’s”.  Wish I could be there to see some football games with you, but guess that will have to wait till next fall for we should all be homey then.

Boys, next time you take a good bath take one for me too! Hot water is really a luxury around where we are.  We hope to get a chance to visit Rome or Naples or both while we are here but haven’t yet.  When we do, I’ll try and pick up a souvenir for each one of you.

Give my regards to Uncle Gene [Eugene] and Uncle Guy and your Daddy and Mother.  I certainly enjoyed the present from your Daddy he gave me before I left – it was wonderful company on the train back to Westover Field.  My little girl has gone back to Texas so guess she will be quite grown before I see her again.  Will close now for this time, so thanks again for writing and for the shamrock.  Be good boys and try and write again soon.  With best wishes, I remain

Sincerely your friend,
“Sgt Jack”

Who was Sgt. Jack?

The Durham family is quite large in Boyle County and is among the older families in the area. My husband is friends with one and asked if he knew who Sgt Jack was, but he was unfamiliar with the name.  My father-in-law reports the good-luck charm, or shamrock, was a rabbit’s foot and this particular Durham family ran the hardware store in town, Durham’s Hardware. With the clues from Hugh and the letter, I came up with the following.

Sergeant Jack Garnett Durham was the son of Charles and Susie (Wingate) Durham. In 1930 their family was living in Danville. Charles Durham was from Moreland, Nicholas County, Kentucky, and Susie Wingate was a Boyle County girl, but somehow they found themselves in Twin Falls, Idaho when Jack was born on 21 October 1910. According to census, Charles worked as a salesman in the hardware industry, and that may have been their connection to the Paint Store Coomer’s.

Jack was a bit of a gypsy. As mentioned before, he was born in Idaho, grew up in Danville, then wound up in Los Angeles. The 1940 Census lists his occupation as a “newsboy,” selling newspapers. His 1941 draft registration card indicates that he was living alone at the age of 29 at 2031 Ivar Avenue, Los Angeles. He was self-employed and selling newspapers at “northeast corner Hollywood at Vine, L.A.”

He enlisted in the Air Corps on 28 October 1941 and his enlistment card states he had 1 year of college and was working as an “author, editor, and reporter”, so perhaps he was attending college in California before he enlisted. If you recall the 52 Ancestors post “Popular”, Guy Coomer worked in the newspaper industry for the Kentucky (Danville) Advocate Messenger. This could be the second possible connection to the Paint Store Coomer’s, however by 1944 Guy was a World War I veteran working for the railroads.

At the time of his enlistment, he was single with no dependents. By the writing of this letter, he had married Pauline Young of Dundee, Texas (obituary says 1943). He had been at Sheppard Air Force Base near Wichita Falls, TX (probably for training) when he met Pauline. His little daughter had been 1 year old when he wrote this letter.

Sgt. Jack was assigned to the 450th Bombardment Group, 723rd Squad. There were about 72 pilots/planes in the 723rd so without his service record, the name of his pilot, or the name of his B-24 it’s difficult to pinpoint which operation he participated in. It is known that he never made it to Rome or Naples. His luck must have run out as he was admitted to an Army Hospital by November 1944 and was discharged. The 723rd squad made several bombing raids over Italy in November 1944 (the last raid targeted the Dobaj railroad bridge in Italy on 21 November). The National Archives and Records Administration redacted the hospital records before releasing them to ancestry.com to include the day in November when he was admitted.

Obituary of Jack G. Durham. Times (Wichita Falls) Record News, 24 November 1982, page 4. Clipped from Newspapers.com

B-24’s were nicknamed flying coffins due to the difficulty of the tail gunners to maneuver to the single entry/exit point of the plane near the front to parachute out. This aircraft consisted of a 10-man crew in 8-9 positions. The officers would man the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier positions while the enlisted men manned the various gunner positions and run ammunition between the gunner positions. Since Sgt Jack was enlisted and talked a lot about flying through flack, I assume he would have manned one of these gunner positions, placing him in a position to receive bullet or shrapnel wounds. Then again, perhaps his luck did not run out. Maybe the lucky rabbit’s foot worked by sending him home to live a long life with his wife and children. 

After the war, Jack returned to the newspaper industry as a reporter and eventually took a job with General Dynamics (a military contractor) as a technical writer where he retired. At the age of 72, Sgt. Jack died in Fort Worth, TX leaving behind his wife, two daughters, his mother, his sister, and a grandchild.

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2 thoughts on “Letters Home – A Boyle County Story

  1. Oh my goodness! This is goosebumpy. I just love everything about it. Oh the connection this young flyer had with young boys who were “at home” doing school and football games and hot baths as usual. But someone (like a DAR mother would do) thought of the soldiers and fliers enough to encourage them to write a letter of support. Their letter obviously meant a lot to Jack Durham. I hope Hugh has this memory and revisit that 9 year old young man that he was so many years ago. Sending so much love there—.

    I never know if you get these comments. Oh well—JS

    Like

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