Skip to comments.I fell for an unknown airman (Memorial Day tribute, ID still a mystery)
Posted on 05/29/2006 5:00:00 PM PDT by WestTexasWend
-Whoever he was, the young man who signed his WWII-era photo, 'Love, Dick,' he deserves a salute on Memorial Day.-
I am obsessed with a man I don't even know.
He had a price on his head in a used office furniture store in Austin last year. So I snapped him up for 50 cents.
Two quarters got me a young man named Dick with hooded blue eyes, a smooth face and a little brown mole over his left eyebrow. His almost-smile ends in dimples, and he has the look of a gentle soul, the kind of man who believes in the goodness of the Golden Rule.
He's definitely more sentiment than swagger. If he tells you he loves you, he means it. When he writes "Love, Dick," he underlines it. Not once, but twice.
And his uniform and shoulder insignia indicate he was one of those 16 million "greatest generation" Americans who served his country in the World War II years. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces.
Trouble is, it's Memorial Day and I have no idea whether Dick is dead or alive.
All I know is that, somehow, after all these years, Dick ended up alone on a dusty shelf in an East Austin warehouse. This was no trendy antiques store with tables full of vintage photographs to peruse. This was an old Quonset hut full of file cabinets, desks and chairs.
I expected the discarded furniture. I didn't expect a discarded life.
But there it was: a vintage, hand-tinted photograph of Dick still in the original cardboard frame from Mission Studios in downtown San Antonio.
What caught my eye was handwriting in the lower right-hand corner of the photograph. Just two simple words in black ink:
I'd stumbled upon a love story, a mystery and a historical drama all in one framed puzzle piece. Who did he love so much? A girlfriend? Wife? Mother?
Who is this man? Is he still alive? Did he see combat?
Most of all, I wondered where his family was and why he'd been abandoned to the junk pile of life.
I took Dick home and propped him upright on a radio near the kitchen. His eyes followed me, and each silent stare was another plea to help him out of oblivion.
I've done my best to track him down, but even military experts say my leads are about exhausted. I'm hardly closer than when I rescued him last spring from the forlorn life of a POW (prisoner of warehouse).
This is what I know now:
Mission Studios was a professional photo outfit across the street from the Alamo. (Was Dick, like me, a Bob Wills fan? "Across the alley from the Alamo . . ."). Mission is no longer in business. San Antonio city directories show Mission Studios operated at 119 1/2 Alamo Plaza only from 1931-1937.
But the shoulder sleeve insignia on Dick's uniform wasn't available until 1942. It's the winged star known now as the Hap Arnold emblem named for Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, who commanded the Army Air Forces in World War II.
The emblem was worn by air force personnel during the war and in the years immediately after. The U.S. Air Force was created in 1947.
So how did a photo of Dick wearing that insignia end up in a frame from a photo studio that shut down in the 1930s?
City directories show the Hutchcraft family that was connected with Mission Studios continued operating photo studios in downtown San Antonio until 1946.
"Perhaps when Hutchcraft took over the studio he had a lot of frames left and just used them up over time?" wonders Frank Faulkner, a manager in the Texana/Genealogy department of the San Antonio Public Library who reviewed the city directories.
The Hap Arnold patch and the Mission Studios picture frame are key clues that identify Dick almost certainly as a young, perhaps even teenaged, enlisted airman in basic training at what is now known as Lackland Air Force Base.
During World War II, Lackland (then an Army Air Forces center under various names) was flooded with enlisted airmen. Between 1943-1945 alone, the base trained nearly 75,000 enlistees, says Lackland wing historian Tech Sgt. Tracy English. But individual records are long gone.
It's not likely that Dick trained anywhere else because enlistees usually weren't allowed to leave basic training for long periods. He probably couldn't have traveled to San Antonio from elsewhere to have his photo made, English said. And Dick wears no collar brass or rank insignia, which indicates the photo was taken very early in his 6- to 8-week basic training, English said.
When I pulled Dick's photo from its frame, another clue spilled out. A number is penciled on the back: 2646. Was the photo taken on Feb. 6, 1946? Or is that the negative number for Mission Studio's files?
No one knows where the Mission Studio negatives ended up, or if they were saved at all. Neither the San Antonio library nor the Institute of Texan Cultures operated by the University of Texas at San Antonio have them.
The photo of Dick I bought in the Austin surplus store, Texas Office Products & Supply on East Fifth Street, came from Arizona. Store owner Mike Hudkins' brother bought the photo in an auction of several abandoned storage units in Mesa.
I knew I couldn't be the only person holding a mystery photo from World War II.
Friends put me in touch with Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran in Virginia who writes military history books and columns for the Air Force Times and other military newspapers. Dorr has a collection of 300,000 military photos, mostly aircraft.
"I have an extraordinary picture of a combat pilot in the Pacific. On the back are written the words 'me, 1944.' Since it came from a yard sale, there is probably no way we'll ever know who this pilot is," Dorr said.
"I wish I could get out to every veteran out there and tell them, 'Go through your photo albums and write on the back who's in that picture.' What better way to be poignantly reminded of the importance of it all but to have in your hands a photo of one of the 16 million who served in World War II and not know who he is?"
Both my parents are veterans of World War II. My father, 1st Lt. Joseph Gamino, was a B-25 navigator in the Pacific while my mother, 1st Lt. Mabel Long, was a U.S. Army nurse stationed in England. Fortunately, they have preserved their photos and memories.
Maybe that's why I feel an emotional kinship to the lost airman. He deserves a family, too. I know a photograph can't be legally adopted, but somehow I've claimed Dick for my own. He served for the rest of us and shouldn't be forgotten or tossed aside.
"We have an obligation to honor those who served us," Dorr says. "We ought to look at their picture and remember their names and remember them and think about them every chance we get, not just on Memorial Day, but all year round."
Dick, whoever you are and wherever you are, here's a salute for you.
Just a few months after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the U.S. Army Air Forces unveiled an eye-catching shoulder sleeve insignia to be worn by all personnel.
Gen. Henry 'Hap' Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, rejected many preliminary designs before his staff member, artist James Rawls, was inspired by Winston Churchill's famous 'V for Victory' hand gesture. Rawls rearranged the pilot wings on his sketches by bending the wings upward at a 45-degree angle.
'That's just what I wanted,' Arnold said. And the design was approved on Feb. 23, 1942.
Army Air Forces was replaced by the U.S. Air Force in 1947. To commemorate the occasion, famed San Antonio military photographer E.O. Goldbeck, known for panoramic images and group pictures, put together a grand replica of the Hap Arnold patch. It was his most ambitious project. On July 19, 1947, he gathered 21,765 men at Lackland Air Force Base, arranged them in the shape of the emblem and snapped the photo from a 200-foot-tall tower that took six weeks to build. Life magazine later published the photo.
The patch was used on uniforms through the end of the Korean War in 1953, though it was never considered the official emblem of the new Air Force. It continued in use on stationery and promotional materials until the 1990s. The Air Force recently resurrected the Hap Arnold patch by placing it on battle uniform T-shirts.
Sources: U.S. Air Force Historical Studies Office, National Museum of the United States Air Force, Handbook of Texas
pics at the link
Call me a sentimental fool but I know what the writer means. The wife and I hit up second hand and antique stores sometimes and I find the old family photos that are for sale very depressing. They strike me as discarded family memories. Things that I value like my right arm
Where's the pic?
Ooops...too quick on my question...thanks for letting us know where the pic is.
Check out the article via the link. There is a small pic
I am the same way you are. When my great grandmother died, I was going through things that were to be sold at a garage sale and found family photos and her father's almanac. I still have the book and photos, and have since become the family archivist. Through photos I have found out a lot about my family history, some great stories, and have come to love going through the old photos. I just hope when I pass one of my children or grandchildren take the collection...
Thanks...I realized that after my post. Nice looking fellow...I wonder who he is...or was, too.
Thanks! Have an old pic of my dad with my great grandma Annie...had copies made for all of my siblings. Those kinds of memories are worth their weight in gold.
My wife (an accomplished genealogical researcher) and I agree with you.
As we travel, we frequently eat at "Cracker Barrel" restaurants. (The food and atmosphere are consistent, and I can indulge my predeliction for breakfast at night -- a holdover from years of USAF "midnight chow"...)
We frequently bemoan the sad losses to family histories represented by the beautiful old family photos on display on the resturant walls -- now nothing but anonymous "decorator items"... :-(
Any thread that mentions Bob Wills deserves a bump.
I know what you mean. My husband and I go "antiquing" every once in awhile and the pictures that I find always intrigue me. I wonder who they were and what their lives were like - it seems so sad to end up in a store, forgotten.
I'll look thru the pics hoping to find something of some historical military significance but it's usually the old wedding and vacation memories
I also have some old home movies from the family of George Bush-- er I mean--George Burch of Tucson, Arizona. I just need to buy a lamp light for the projector.
On the same note, I also buy people's scrapbooks. Those are my favorite things.
Looking at your FR page I see we have something, possibly, in common. Both of my grandparents on my Dad's side immigrated (legally) thru Ellis island from Titel and Budapest as small children prior to 1910
I believe Bob Wills did record "Across the Alley from the Alamo", but the big hit was by the Mills Brothers. Words and music by Joe Greene. I can still hear that in my head every time I think of it.
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