How Bill and Dee’s precious love was shattered by war
His war ended before it really began and broke the heart of the woman waiting for him thousands of miles away. STACIA BRIGGS discovers the heartbreaking story of First Lieutenant William Gamble Rueckert, one of the Hardwick boys who never came home.
Theirs is just one of the love stories that spanned an ocean during the Second World War and one of countless thousands that didn't have the happy ending it deserved.
Almost 670 American aircrew who were based at Hardwick Air Field in Norfolk never made it back to the families waiting for them to rejoin the lives they had left to fight a war on the other side of the world.
William Gamble Rueckert was one of the 668 who made a promise to his wife that he couldn't keep, however desperately he wanted to. He promised, when he left in March 1944, that he would be home soon with wife Dee, son Billy and daughter Dianne.
Within weeks, he was dead, his last moments spent in the dark skies above Norfolk, a catastrophic mechanical fault ending William's war just minutes into his first-ever bombing mission. He was 23.
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William was born on September 9 1920, an adored only child who made his parents proud from the day he was born until the day he died.
A high achiever at school, he won a place at Illinois University to study law. It was where he met his wife-to-be, Dee, on a blind date on April 29, 1939 at the Zeta Psi spring formal.
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It was a date that could have been a disaster: the car bringing the gang to pick up their dates broke down and the men were two hours late. Someone had ordered flowers for the girls and they were definitely past their glory days. Bill and Dee didn't really talk until after they'd danced together – but somehow, their first meeting was just perfect.
Inseparable almost immediately, the young lovebirds considered eloping – they knew the love they had was 'for always' but persuading their parents was another matter, although everyone quickly realised that what Bill and Dee had was the real thing.
The pair married a year after they'd met when they were just 19. William was a hard worker, a quiet chap who preferred to listen than to talk, a reader who loved Shakespeare and Proust but who, on the quiet, loved nothing more than to dance.
It was no surprise to anyone that William was keen to do his duty for the war effort.
He joined the American Army on July 15 1941, reporting to the 4th Armored Division, assigned to the 35th Armored Regiment at Pine Camp, New York, where he quickly earned a medal for Artillery and for Rifle and served as First Lieutenant Maintenance Officer, 1st Battalion.
In November 1941, William wrote a letter home to Dee containing a photograph of him in uniform. It said: 'When you see this picture, darling, know that this is just what I'm thinking: 'My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife, Dee!
'My one ambition in life is to make her the happiest bride in the world! She holds all of my love forever and my every effort will be for her…It will be always as it is now – Dee and Bill Reuckert for always.''
William volunteered to join the Army Air Corps and trained to pilot B-24s, later reporting to Advanced Flying Field in California where he served as a Student Officer for Class 43-H before transferring to New Mexico where he passed the Instrument Flight Test to become a pilot instructor on October 28, 1943.
In New Mexico, Reuckert escaped death by a whisker while he was landing another B-24: a small training plane came in underneath him and there was a terrible crash which killed the captain in the training plane. Reuckert somehow managed to lead his crew to safety and was credited with saving their lives.
In March 1944, he requested to go overseas to Britain with a hand-picked crew and was posted to the 93rd Bomb Group, the 409 Bomb Squadron at Hardwick air field in Norfolk in April.
Promising his new wife that he would return home soon, he left America for British soil, joining his comrades in the Travelling Circus.
His promise was ambitious, to say the least.
Only one in three crewmen of the 2nd Air Division USAAF returned alive and the average age of a pilot was just 20: at 23, Rueckert was a veritable old-timer, albeit one who was yet to fly in combat.
Thousands of airmen and women from the United States arrived in Norfolk in 1942, a friendly invasion met with initial suspicion and jealousy but who proved too irresistible to ignore, bringing with them as they did the glamour and glitz of America.
Hardwick air field, 12 miles south of Norwich, was originally planned as a base for the RAF but became the home of the 93rd group, known as Ted's Travelling Circus after its original commander, Colonel Edward J Timberlake, which was equipped with the four-engine B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.
In its heyday, the airfield boasted 13 miles of roadways, three T-2 hangars, three concrete runways and was home to up to 3,200 American personnel, who in turn flew hundreds of missions, dropped thousands of bombs and lost 668 brave airmen. Including William Gamble Rueckert.
In the weeks before his arrival, the 93rd had launched an all-out assault on German aircraft factories during what came to be known as 'The Big Week' in February 1944, crippling the enemy's aircraft industry and cutting production by half.
The group had also suffered the Eighth Air Force's most costly mission of the war on March 6 when 69 of 730 bombers didn't come home and had recently started to operate in support of the upcoming invasion of occupied Europe, bombing targets in France and Belgium.
Having arrived at Hardwick just a few days earlier, Lt Reuckert was assigned to a battle-experienced pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Albert Schreiner for his first mission – ahead of as-yet-top-secret D-Day plans, he was due to fly over Europe at night to help lay the groundwork for the attack on June 6.
Before he flew, Rueckert prayed at nearby St Margaret's church in Topcroft, which today has a plaque to commemorate the American airmen who were posted to the village and never made it home.
It's likely he re-read one of the letters that had made it across the Atlantic from Dee – he'd told her that he read her letters over and over again and was sad that more hadn't reached him.
On the evening of May 1, he left his plane and the majority of his crew at Hardwick and joined his best friend, who was navigator, and Schreiner in his B-24, number 42-47621, nicknamed 'Joy Ride'.
It's not known what went wrong that night, but whatever happened was catastrophic.
Shortly after becoming airborne, the plane smashed back on to the runway killing the pilot, Lt Reuckert, the co-pilot, the bombardier, the radio operator and the nose gunner.
Five crew members managed to scramble to safety shortly before the plane exploded after crash-landing.
Poignantly, the seat in which Rueckert had been sitting was one of the few parts of the shattered B-24 that was still recognisable. The crash closed the runway, one of three at Hardwick, for five days while the wreckage was cleared and bodies were recovered.
Thousands of miles away, back at home, in St George, Staten Island, New York, Dee had no idea that the love of her life was dead.
She had spent two weeks getting the family's new apartment straight, eagerly looking forward to a future with her beloved Bill back at her side and wondering whether or not her husband had received more of the letters she'd written to him – he'd told her that he'd only received eight, but she'd written more than a hundred. Sometimes she wrote to him three times a day.
Dee was the same age as her husband – 23 – although he would shortly turn 24. The pair had been married for a little over four years but people found it hard to believe that they weren't still in the early days of a particularly intense honeymoon period: they were still head-over-heels in love.
Along with little Dianne, six-months and Billy, two-and-a-half, Dee had been living with her family in nearby Castelton Corners, but although he loved her family, Bill had been keen for her to have her own home, one she could wait for him in.
The couple had never had a home of their own – there had been a year in rented accommodation in Watertown, New York, when they'd picked up some bits and pieces of furniture: some second-hand chairs and some glass candlesticks to draw attention away from a table that Dee particularly loathed.
The candlesticks became a talisman for Bill and Dee: wherever they stood was home, be it in New York, California or New Mexico.
But even during the Watertown year, Bill had been away a great deal, training with the Army. On their second wedding anniversary, he had been stationed in a bivouac 22 miles away, but insisted on walking home to celebrate with his wife, the best present she could have ever hoped for.
Their son Billy was born in December 1941 and on his first birthday, Bill was in California learning how to fly B-24s.
From the Desert Training Center in The Golden State, he wrote to Billy to wish him happy birthday: 'I can't begin to tell you, boy, how sorry I am that I can't be with you on this day to help you celebrate – this is really one of the biggest days of your life. But your Uncle Sam (I'll tell you much about him later) is in a terrible pickle and he has a lot of jobs to be done.
'I'm doing my best to help him out way out here in California. Even though I'm a whole continent away and writing in an army tent by candle-light, my thoughts are all yours this day.'
As she readied the new apartment and waited to hear from Bill, she absentmindedly thought that the second-hand chairs would have to be re-covered: the couple's much-loved cocker spaniels had scratched them in their desperation to clamber on her husband's lap whenever he was home.
On the afternoon of May 18, the apartment was finally ready.
Dee's baby grand piano had pride of place, Dianne's freshly-trimmed pink bassinet was in her room and Billy's high chair was in the dining room. Letters and telegrams from Bill were neatly piled and dozens of anniversary cards (the pair marked far more than just their wedding anniversary- for example, they would send cards to mark the date they had almost eloped) stood next to photo albums full of pictures of the couple.
There were photographs of Dee and Bill, of Billy and Dianne, of the dogs and of the car that Bill had given Dee for her birthday – their love catalogued in chronological order.
On the wall was Bill's Grand Army Memorial saber, presented to him when he graduated from college where he had been a cadet major and president of the Cavalry Officers Club and the all-important candlesticks were on the table.
The only thing missing was Bill.
After proudly looking around the apartment, Dee set off for her parents' house with Billy and Dianne. The house was empty, Dee's mother was at work in New York and not due home until around 7pm, so she busied herself with chores, taking some washing out to hang on the line.
As Dee pegged out washing, she heard a car draw up outside the house and then saw a man begin to walk up the driveway.
'Mrs Reuckert?' he said.
'Yes?' she replied.
'Will you come into the house?'
For a split second, Dee thought how odd it was that a stranger was asking her to step inside her own mother's house. Then she saw the telegram with two red stars on it: she didn't have to open it to know what it contained.
Bill had left America in March and was dead just weeks later. His final wire to his wife had said simply: 'Stay here probably short. I adore you.'
The man with the telegram told her all he knew. Dee couldn't accept that her husband was dead, but then his best friend wrote to her.
He had been too injured to write immediately and too shocked to put into words what had happened, but finally he found the courage to put pen to paper to his friend's wife.
He told her that Bill had been given a full military funeral and had been buried at Madingley American Cemetery just outside Cambridge, which is the final resting place of 3,812 war dead from the Second World War era and includes a memorial to the missing inscribed with the names of more than 8,000 servicemen whose bodies were never recovered.
His body was later repatriated and buried in his family's plot in Illinois. The Purple Heart he was awarded for his services to the war effort was later donated to Topcroft Church where Rueckert prayed just hours before he died.
In the months that followed her husband's death, Dee's life was turned upside-down.
She sub-let the flat that was to have been the family's new home, she sold the piano and packed away the candlesticks. She, Billy and Dianne stayed with her parents and she tried not to cry every time a plane went overhead and Billy pointed to it, asking 'Daddy?'
'He was everything I ever wanted,' said Dee in an interview in a national magazine, 'you can't imagine how sweet he was. I was always so proud to be his wife.
'Bill was an only child and wanted a family so badly. He was terribly proud of his children.'
Many years after his death, son Billy made a pilgrimage to Topcroft to donate his father's Purple Heart to the church and to be in the place where the Dad he never really knew spent his last days.
David Woodrow, himself a D-Day veteran, hosts a Remembrance service for the lost American airmen every November at Hardwick, which he bought in 1949 and now runs as a farm.
'Men like William Rueckert left their homes and their families to fight in a war thousands of miles away and it's important that they are never forgotten,' said Mr Woodrow, who has hosted his special service for the past 67 years.
'In the past, veterans who were based here have returned and then their relations. It's always particularly moving when a relative visits to see the place where someone they loved was based just before they died.
'It's nice to have the story about William because it makes him more real. So many wives were left behind. This is why it's so important that we never forget the true price of war.'
Visitors are welcome to Airfield Farm on the third Sunday of each month from May to October. The farm, which was once home to 3,200 American airmen and women, is now home to the USAAF Second World War 93rd Bomb Group Museum based in some of the remaining Nissen Huts from Hardwick Air Field. The next open day is on April 19 2015, although you can still visit by appointment. For more details, visit www.93rd-bg-museum.org.