(Photo - Walter Duke standing beside a Fleet Finch Mk. II RCAF 4594 at No. 9 EFTS.)
December 12, 2012
Solving a WWII mystery
by Jason Babcock Staff writer (SoMdNews)
Captain Walter Francis Duke of Leonardtown was shot down over Burma on June 6, 1944,, and was never heard from again. The Army believes it has found his remains in the cleared jungle of today’s Myanmar and his next of kin are being notified.
The remains of Capt. Walter Francis Duke, shot down in combat over the jungles of Burma in World War II, may have been located, his kin were advised last weekend.
Family members are hoping that a 68-year-old mystery has been solved.
A forensic genealogist working as a contractor for the U.S. Army said it’s premature to say Duke has in fact been found in recently cleared jungle in the country today called Myanmar, but the Army doesn’t put her to work to locate survivors if a loved one hasn’t been found. A P-38 aircraft with numbers matching Duke’s plane was discovered with the remains, the genealogist said.
“When they give me a case to do, there’s a reason,” she said, asking to remain anonymous as it is the Army’s responsibility to make the official notification to the family.
Duke went missing in action, reported shot down over Burma, on June 6, 1944. That was also D-Day, the day half a world away when U.S. forces and their allies crossed the English Channel to push back the Nazi German forces.
The family was left wondering what happened to Duke ever since.
“I don’t know how I feel about it,” said Eleanor Ann Fearns, 88, after learning Duke’s remains may have been found.
“All the memories come back now. I was in high school when he was reported MIA,” she said from her Leonardtown home.
Fearns is one of two sisters still living among Duke’s many siblings.
Fearns said she was contacted by the genealogist. “They didn’t tell me what they had found, but they asked about DNA” to verify if the remains are Duke’s.
“If it’s a match, then a casualty officer physically visits the family,” the genealogist said.
The Duke family burial plot is at the old St. Aloysius Cemetery off Cemetery Road in Leonardtown. Fearns said as the next of kin, she would request his remains be buried there as well.
“My brother, George, I wish so he was still alive. [Walter] was his idol,” Fearns said.
George Duke was 12 when his older brother went missing.
George Duke researched his brother’s service over the years, trying to find out what happened to him in combat. George Duke even found the pilot who shot his brother down with the help of the Japanese Embassy, his sister said, and began a written correspondence.
Capt. Duke signed up to be a combat pilot before Japan attacked the United States in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Before the Pearl Harbor attack, most Americans wanted to stay out of the war.
Capt. Duke signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force in July 1941, after Germany had invaded France and launched an aerial attack of England. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in May 1942 after the United States was pulled into the war.
By the age of 21, Duke was a captain and an ace fighter pilot. In March 1943, the Allies began pushing the Japanese Air Force out of Burma, George Duke told the St. Mary’s County commissioners in a 1999 letter.
From March to May that year, Capt. Duke scored 10 confirmed kills, eight probable kills, 13 damaged aircraft, plus more destroyed or damaged on the ground.
The (Baltimore) Sun called him “Maryland’s leading air ace of World War II” on May 20, 1944.
In wartime letters back home, the newspaper reported, Capt. Duke shared few details of his combat missions. “I am getting my share … I get a little scared in the tough spots but I am doing okay,” he wrote March 30, 1944.
Capt. Duke, on leave back home in St. Mary’s, married Verja Graham in March 1943, a girl he had known since childhood, The Sun reported on June 23, 1944.
His P-38 plane had “Miss V” painted on the nose after his wife.
The genealogist found Verja still living in Florida. She remarried so she is no longer next of kin.
Capt. Duke told his family he was expecting to come back home for a visit so a celebration was planned in his hometown of Leonardtown. However, the news came on June 21, 1944, that he was reported as missing as of June 6.
The celebration plans were not canceled, The Sun reported. “St. Mary’s countians plan to honor their ace by buying war bonds,” an article said.
Sen. Millard Tydings told the audience on June 22 he believed that Capt. Duke was captured by the Japanese or was making his way through the jungle.
Now more than 68 years later, the question of what happened to Capt. Duke may have been answered.
George Duke said his brother shot down three enemy planes before they got him.
The county’s airport was once named after Capt. Duke, but is now called the St. Mary’s County Regional Airport. The terminal building bears Duke’s name.
Charles Woods (August 31, 1921 - October 17, 2004) was an Alabama businessman and broadcaster and aspiring politician. He arrived at No. 9 Elementary Flying Training School, St. Catharines July 3, 1941 as a member of Course 32. Woods completed his training at No. 9 EFTS August 20, 1941 and was posted to No. 14 SFTS Aylmer.
He was born Charles Arthur Morris just 35 miles outside Birmingham, Alabama. His divorced mother was unable to support her two young sons so she placed them in a state orphanage when he was five years old. He never saw her again and at age of 6 was adopted by P. A. Woods family from Headland, Alabama. He attended schools in Hollywood, California, where his new family lived for a some time, and in Headland.
Woods transferred to the USAAF in December 1942 in Cairo, Egypt.
He was severely injured in a 1944 airplane crash on December 23. He taxied down a runway in Kurmitola, India, carrying 28,000 pounds (12.7 tonnes) of aviation fuel to be delivered in Lulaing, China. After making the trip alone, hundreds of times, on this particular trip, he was flying with a pilot-in-training, Captain Stalmacher, in first seat. Stalmacher erred on take-off, braking too soon causing the airplane to lose speed with too little runway left. The bomber exploded on take-off, and Woods was the only crew member who survived. He suffered severe burns over 70% of his body. The fire erased his face, destroying his nose, eyelids, ears and hands. He was transported to Valley Forge General Hospital, a military hospital in Pennsylvania six weeks after the accident. Since he was so weak, he could only travel short legs at one time. The 10,000 mile (16,000 km) trip proved arduous to Woods who arrived at Valley Forge malnourished, dehydrated and suffering from infections in addition to being severely burned.
Woods, severely burned, was dying and needed new skin. In desperation, skin was taken from a recently dead soldier, with his family's permission, and was draped onto Woods. This "foreign" skin normally would have been rejected by Woods's immune system within 10 to 14 days—too soon for his own skin to grow back. However, the new skin survived for more than a month, buying Woods just enough time to save his life. This breakthrough led to the development of techniques for organ transplant. He was a patient of Dr. Joseph Murray at Valley Forge General Hospital from 1945-1947. Murray won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1990 for work in organ and cell transplantation. Woods and his case is featured in Dr. Murray's 2001 autobiography, Surgery Of The Soul: Reflections on a Curious Career.
Over the next two years, Woods was operated on 24 times to construct a new face, often with very little anesthesia.
Woods prevailed and began a very successful career in construction and in radio and television stations. He built a multi-million dollar empire in franchises all over the country. He owned WTVY in Dothan, Alabama from its early years until 2000, in addition to other radio and television stations. He ran for governor and lieutenant governor of Alabama, once running against George Wallace. He was known for his long form self-purchased television campaign commercials.
He came very close to winning the Democratic nomination for Alabama Lieutenant Governor in 1974, leading in the first round of voting but losing in a runoff to incumbent Jere Beasley.
In Nevada he had a respectable performance in the Democratic primary against Harry Reid in 1992, although Reid won re-election in the primary and the general election. Woods also sought the Democratic nomination for President in 1992 as a long-shot candidate. He showed best in North Dakota, winning 20.26% after write-in winner Ross Perot, Lyndon LaRouche and before eventual nominee and President of the United States Bill Clinton.
His presidential bid slogan was The Businessman's Approach.
Woods then ran in the Republican primaries for US Senate elections in Nevada in 1994 and Alabama in 1996, but lost in the primaries both times. In 2000 and 2002, he won the Democratic nominations to run in Alabama's second Congressional district, and was defeated by Republican Terry Everett twice.  Although never elected to public office, Charles Woods made many important contributions to the voters in Alabama. Despite the intense suffering he underwent, he always said, "I consider myself an ordinary man greatly blessed by God."
He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in November 2004.
(Interview credit and information - D. Woods - YouTube Harold Channer interview)