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VETERAN’S DAY: Story of downed airman still resonates on both sides of the ocean

IRONTON — It is probably safe to say that there are 500 or so individuals within the Tri-State who celebrated their 93rd birthday in 2009. One of those special dates belonged to an Ironton native whose birthday was a little less than a month ago on Oct. 15.

However, those people who got to blow out 93 candles with friends and family, children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren during the past year, they also did something that Ironton man was not able to do.

They were able to live 65 years longer than he did.

That is because that Ironton-native, T/Sgt. John W. Belcher, died in 1944 while serving his country during World War II. A life, like so many others during the war, ended before a 30th birthday.

But unlike many others who gave their life before and after him, Belcher’s sacrifice had never gotten the same kind of recognition other heroes have.

That would change six-and-a-half decades later thanks to the Internet, his hometown’s American Legion post and a determined Belgian with no connection to Ironton, or for that matter Belcher himself.

It is a story that makes Veterans Day, one of the most sacred American holidays even more special.

Enlisting into the U.S. Army in February 1942, Belcher was trained as a radio operator and waist gunner on a B-24 bomber crew. He even was part of the crew that flew the “Our Baby” B-24 bomber across the Atlantic arriving on Valentine’s Day, 1944.

Sadly, less than two months after landing in Europe, Belcher, along with his crewmates, was shot down near the Danube River on April 4, 1944. The tragedy came after a successful bombing mission over the marshalling yards of Bucharest, Romania, one of the Axis capital cities.

Seven days later, after being transported by to a medic center at the town of Ruse, Bulgaria, Belcher died of head and stomach wounds. In a two-year span, he would be buried three separate times – twice in Bulgaria and once in Italy – before being transported back to the United States and his beloved hometown.

Finally, on Aug. 20, 1948 Belcher was buried with full military honors at Woodland Cemetery. His name appears on the Memorial Wall along the Ohio River that is dedicated to all Lawrence County casualties of war.

For awhile the success of that bombing mission and the airmen who gave their lives in accomplishing it were celebrated. Statues and memorials were erected in several cities including Central Falls, R.I.

But then things changed. The men who gave their lives seemed to drift in and out of the history books. As years and even decades went by less and less would be known about the success of the mission and who even partook in it.

Enter Philippe Vanderdonckt, a Belgian charged with continuing a quest first started by his father.

Vanderdonckt lives in Ronse, a Belgian town where some American airmen shot down during the war are buried. He does extensive research on those men, along with other deceased fliers, attempting to fill in the missing blanks or even chapters of their lives.

And Belcher is one of those men Vanderdonckt is currently researching.

Vanderdonckt wants to know everything about Belcher. While never meeting the man personally, he is in constant contact with American Legion Post #433 Commander Jim Volgares and even wrote a Letter to the Editor in The Tribune asking for any information.

“It is nothing short of phenomenal that he has done this,” Volgares said. “Many Belgians are still sincerely appreciative of what we did during World War II and have never forgotten.”

His research never really stops and two months after starting his Belcher research, many of those chapters and blanks are starting to get filled in.

Others have benefited as well. Remember that memorial in Rhode Island. Due to Vanderdonckt’s work, the navigator on that mission, Second Lieutenant Gilbert A. Malrait was found to have hailed from Central Falls and will soon have his named added to their monument.

Vanderdonckt is hoping there are family members who can contact him with even more information about Belcher. He has set up an e-mail address at ph.vanderdonckt@skynet.be along with a tribute Internet site at http://2ltmalrait.110mb.com/indexE.htm.