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Journal provides detail on WWII air war

Cloquet man died in action during his 25th bombing run

"Time has a way of healing our heartaches but memories last forever."

Tucked into a folder on Cloquet native William Dupont at the Carlton County Historical Society is a letter from Fred Asbell. He had been asked by a historian what he could recall about Dupont from World War II, when they were airplane navigators on the same base.

It was 1990, nearly 50 years since the two had plied their skills guiding B-17s, the planes tasked with bombing deep into Germany and all around the European Theater from bases in England. The bombing missions by the Army Air Forces were some of the most dangerous activities in the war outside of fighting on the ground at the fronts. They were constantly attacked by German fighter planes and anti-aircraft flak. It wasn't uncommon for the giant airships to come home riddled with holes and other damage, if they returned at all.

"Your letter brings back some good memories of my friend Bill 'Dewey' Dupont," Asbell wrote from Macon, Georgia, his hometown.

The two men were small in stature, Asbell said, making them obvious candidates for the cramped space navigators found in the glass-encased nose of the B-17, known as "The Flying Fortress" and famed for the nicknames airmen painted outside the cockpits. They had to share that space with the bombardier, all while trying to accurately navigate the crew of up to 10 men to the bombing site. They both had a gun to man as well.

Asbell and Dupont flew some missions together, but eventually found themselves as navigators on the lead planes in the massive formations, with waves consisting of 18 planes or more.

On Sept. 26, 1944, after seven months of often harrowing flights, Dupont was on his 25th bombing run, meaning he had finished a tour and could go home on leave once they came back down.

Asbell had plans to meet the B-17 named Follow Me. "We were going to celebrate," he wrote.

The cruelty of war can be seen on the mission reports from Dupont's run. It was deemed successful, with all but one plane returning and just one crewman confirmed as killed in action. It was Dupont. After dodging close calls with flak puncturing his work space for months, he took a piece of metal in his chest, dying instantly. The bombs had been dropped, and the flak came at the German border with the Netherlands. The plane returned to Glatton air base north of London.

"What a sad day it was when I was at the flight line to meet Dewey and we removed him from the plane," Asbell wrote. "What a horrible way for a fine young man to complete his tour of duty."


The file at the historical society is a fascinating one. It includes Dupont's personal journal, written in letters to his mom that he never meant to send. Much of what he wrote would have never made it past censors trying to keep a tight lid on war activities. The result is a real-time, extremely detailed account of the life of one of more than 3,000 soldiers on the base.

Dupont's journal has been passed down through family members.

The Duponts were well known in Cloquet. Edward Dupont was the secretary-treasurer at Northwest Paper Company. He and Hazel raised four children on the West End: Rosemary, William, Edward (known as Paul), and Philip, who died of leukemia in 1930 at age 4.

Rosemary's daughter, Jenifer Behrens of Cloquet, donated the file on her uncle to the historical society. She had used passages in his journal as Memorial Day lessons over the years to the grade-school children she taught in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and eventually Cloquet.

She said the children were fascinated by the details of B-17 warfare that Dupont provided. She said it stuck with them "because it isn't like most stories they knew. There wasn't a happy ending."

She said the Dupont children all fashioned themselves as writers, not shy about expressing themselves. Behrens is the only Dupont grandchild to have been alive while William was alive. She was 2 when he died at age 26.

Paul Dupont was a year younger than William and served in the Army in Italy and Africa. He died in 2000.

Saying goodbye

William Dupont was known as Laddie in Cloquet. He was born in 1918, the year of the fires that destroyed most of the city. He was a 1935 graduate of Cloquet High School and then a graduate of Lawrence College in Wisconsin. During college he had worked as a chemist at the paper mill.

He enlisted in the Army Air Forces in January of 1943. After a year of training, he was deemed ready for service in Europe, flying over on a B-17.

Dupont's journal begins with an account written on Feb. 26, 1944, about a weather-battered trip to Ireland and then England, and then being thrown right into the thick of things.

"To be taken to the states and mailed to Mrs. E.P. Dupont," the front of the journal states. "I intend to write this letter and make it as complete as possible with all the details I can't put in my regular letters," the first entry reads. "I hope to bring it back to you, but after yesterday's experience, I have left instructions for other people to get it to you if I don't get back."

Dupont was fortunate to see his parents and sister as he made his way east for Europe. They took a train to Grand Island, Nebraska to see him off. "A wonderful reunion," Dupont wrote.

Hazel Dupont slipped her son a letter and told him to read it later.

Laddie was entering the air war over Europe at a critical time. The U.S. forces had initiated "Big Week," a series of bombings deep into Germany in late February of 1944, targeting airplane assembly plants. It was an attempt to cripple the German air forces, the Luftwaffe, as the D-Day invasion of occupied France loomed four months away.

Dupont's first mission "was rough," he wrote. It shook him. And it certainly had him thinking about his mortality.

The 10-hour mission to Augsburg was littered with flak bombs exploding in the sky. Dupont writes whipsaw-like about all the traffic in the air as P-47s and P-38s protected the bomber fleet. His plane ended up with 43 holes in it. The co-pilot was injured in the knee by flak.

"I can go home after finishing 25 missions," Dupont wrote. "But if they are all as bad as yesterday's, I have very little chance of making it. Flak at a distance doesn't bother you but when it is that accurate it can throw you for a loop."

The bombers flew at high altitude, which meant the outdoor temperature could be 30 to 50 degrees below zero. Navigators not only had to work the numbers and site in the flight route, they were also responsible for the second gun turret in the nose.

Dupont's pilot on that mission, Raymond Syptak, wrote in his memoirs years later about the psychological torment Dupont was experiencing. It was the pilot's first mission as well.

"At the beginning of a tour, most crew members assumed a fatalistic attitude of 'I'm either going to make it or I'm not.' After completing half the required total, if successful, there was more anxiety," Syptak wrote. "The thought then became, 'If I have completed one half of the missions, I might make it.' Then 'sweating' the missions increased. Very few refused to continue and very few wound up in rest centers."

It's remarkable how Dupont's next-day recollections sync with those of survivors years later.

Syptak's recall of that first mission mirrored Dupont's words. "I saw lots of German fighters, B-17s going down, some blowing up," Syptak wrote in 2000. "My co-pilot was hit in the knee ... After that first mission, I remember asking myself 'How can you possibly get through 25 of these?'"

Dupont had read the letter from his mother on his way to England. "It was a wonderful letter Mom and nearly made me cry. It started me thinking what wonderful parents I have. I have never told you this before but it's high time I did. There has never been a time when I was dissatisfied with my family. You gave me the easiest and happiest boyhood and entire life until the present moment. Please remember that if I don't bring this [journal] back myself, I have thoroughly enjoyed all the years of my life. Many people live to be 80 and don't have 26 good years."

Long slog

Dupont's journal continues sporadically for the next four months.

He details the 16 missions he was on up to June 9, including easy "milk runs" with little resistance, to more horrific missions like the first.

Jenifer Behrens said there were letters Dupont sent home, but there was little sense to them because of censoring. "They cut words right out of the pages," she said.

If they were anything like his journal, it's understandable that the censors had a field day.

Dupont sprinkles the journal with warnings about keeping all information he's written quiet until after the war.

At one point, he muses about the not-so-secret D-Day invasion. The bombers had been hitting targets in France that didn't make much sense. "The invasion talk is getting louder and louder and it will probably be within the next two weeks," he wrote on June 1, just five days before the invasion. B-17s played a small part in it, bombing positions behind the beaches to snarl travel for the Germans.

The bombing before D-Day at random targets far from what would become the Utah or Omaha beaches was likely a "bluff," Dupont thought. "Most of us armchair strategists think they will go down between LeHavre and Cherbourg peninsulas. That is the only part of the invasion coast that we haven't bombed and it seems the greatest tactical surprise could be gained if they hit there. These will probably turn out like my predictions on the Minnesota football games, so I am prepared to hide my head when it does come."

He was right.

There are a few more entries on raids around Paris. Weather hampered bombing in Germany for much of the summer. Dupont had been averaging about four missions a month into June. For the balance of June and through much of September, he would have just eight missions.

He had mentioned in his early entries, without much fanfare about the prowess he had likely shown in navigating, that he would only fly when his plane was leading a mission. It meant fewer missions as time went on. He had risen to the rank of captain.

On May 28, Dupont found himself on a mission facing a new kind of attack from the Germans. The fighters would fly in formations of 50 to 100 planes and stalk fleets out of gunfire range. Then "suddenly the whole formation will turn into you and all attack at once."

Dupont said the allied P-38s saved the mission from disaster. "Those who were left went on to the target and the flak nearly finished what the fighter had started. A spare oxygen bottle saved my life when the flak was the heaviest. It got in the way and took the beating instead of me. .. We actually kissed the beautiful ground, we were so thankful to get down in one piece."

Last run

Dupont's luck ran out four months later, on a mission to Osnabruck, Germany. The Follow Me B-17 he died in would be shot down and lost over Germany two weeks later. After being buried at a military cemetery in England initially, Dupont's remains were sent home to the family plot at Old Calvary Cemetery.

Laddie's mother took the death hard. She had a lot of loss in her life, Behrens said. There was Philip 14 years before Laddie. Her husband, Edward, died at age 57 in 1948, just four years after she lost her first-born son. She would carry her burdens until she died in 1978.

"She was distraught," Behrens said. "She always kept his Purple Heart close, a lock of his hair. She always talked about Laddie, like he was still there. She lost a lot of people."

The letter from fellow navigator Asbell is in the Dupont file because of other casualties on the day Dupont was killed. A crew had to bail out of a plane over the Netherlands, some captured and sent to POW camps, some hidden by resistance fighters, and some killed. An amateur historian in The Hague had grown up listening to his parents, teenagers during the war, tell the story of watching the men come down. Harold Jansen spent years researching what happened that day, and learned about Dupont's death as his plane crossed into his country.

Jansen wrote letters to the Dupont family and shared those he exchanged with airmen in the theater at the time. He ended up writing two books about the 457th Bombing Group at Glatton.

The group flew 236 missions and lost 94 aircraft. It began with 60 B-17s in February and 60 were lost by midsummer. More planes and more men constantly came in as replacements.

How it was

There are the Memphis Belle films that fairly accurately portray the B-17 experience. Most recently, Apple TV had a miniseries on B-17 airmen, "Masters of the Air."

Depictions in all of these accounts have many similarities to Dupont's own words.

One in particular tells the story of a war's abstract moments. His mission was taking another "beating" in mid-April, German fighters all around in new types of airplanes. Dupont was in his vulnerable window seat in the nose.

"I was so fascinated by (the planes) that I didn't even bother to shoot. The whole leading edge of the wing twinkles as their guns fire and some of them came so close that you could see the fear on their faces. ... It is a consolation to know that they are just as frightened as we are."

Dupont's words are vital history. He provided moments to remember him by, for those who never knew him.

Asbell was there, of course, and held dear to the memory of his old friend, writing 46 years later: "Time has a way of healing our heartaches but memories last forever."

Find a comprehensive database of missions and photographs of the 457th Bombardment Group at 457thbombgroupassoc.org.