My first memory of my Uncle Al was his tombstone.
When I was a kid, my family would drive out to visit relatives buried in the cemeteries on Long Island. First we’d visit my grandmother and grandfather, and then, on rare occasions, my Uncle Al in the military cemetery. Even then, he was an afterthought.
I remember my dad kneeling down beside the grave of his older brother, looking sad and pensive. He mentioned something about Al dying in World War II. We placed stones on his white gravestone, which said:
Sgt. Air Corps
December 2, 1943
It had a little Jewish star on top, the only one among so many stones with crosses. He seemed kind of alone.
I hardly know why I’ve spent the better part of a year researching the life of this poor guy. His plane crashed during a training flight that, as it turns out, he shouldn’t even have been on.
But that’s jumping ahead. For 50-odd years, I knew next to nothing of my dad’s brother. About a year ago, I found some old family photos, and there was this yellowed black-and-white picture of him in his Army uniform.
It was the first time I’d seen his face. It reminded me of my dad, Milton Schneider, who had passed away only a few years ago.
Looking sharp in his Army dress shirt and tie, Al stands with a big proud smile on his face. His dark hair is receding a bit, the same way mine did at that age.
He looks relaxed, standing with his legs apart and his hands on his hips. He even looks a little cocky, you know, like American GIs did, like he’s good and ready to defend the world.
Here was the uncle I never had.
But seeing his face, with echoes of my father’s, I saw something else: hints of their mysterious, painful family life.
Al, the second of four siblings, was 10 years older than my dad. They grew up under separate roofs.
When my dad was just a baby, his mother died. As a baby, his father placed him in the Pride of Judea Orphanage in Brooklyn. He grew up there. In fact, that’s where he met my mother.
About nine years later his father, a tailor, died, making my dad a true orphan. Dad had just a single memory of his father: watching him walk down a Brooklyn street, carrying a sewing machine on his back.
Dad didn’t talk a lot about that part of his past. I think I’ve carried some of my father’s bitterness over him being abandoned.
Two of my father’s three siblings died before I was born, but I knew his sister, my Aunt Lill, and her children, my cousins. We were all close when I was young. But over the years, misunderstandings and perceived slights drove our families apart.
But looking at Al’s photo, I realized his death was a price my family paid in World War II, just a small piece of so many Americans’ pain, a pain that trickles down the generations. So I jotted down his name and his date of death and began my search.
It led me to the accident report on the plane crash that ended his life. Reading those pages, I felt like I was traveling along on that doomed ride. The search took me to one of the guys in Al’s unit, who told me things that blew my mind. It even took me back to Aunt Lill’s daughter, a cousin I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years.
Somewhere along the way, this became a kind of mission for me. Part of it was for me: I was trying to bring my Uncle Al back, so he could be part of my life. I was trying to create a relationship with a dead man, however absurd that might seem.
Part of it was for Uncle Al. Nobody talked about this guy. He had no wife and no kids. I wanted to give this unknown soldier a legacy.
He’d earned it. All I knew was that he’d died in a plane crash in a Nebraska prairie during a training mission that went wrong.
In my way, I wanted to save him.
Off to a rocky start
Some investigative reporter, I told myself. Several months into my efforts, I’d barely broken the surface.
Google had failed to deliver much of anything. I found a memorial Web page to those who died in his unit, the 440th Troop Carrier Group. It mentioned his name. Just his name.
Ancestry.com spun my head around. I would hit upon a Schneider family but the names didn’t match up. I called a military agency, but nobody called back. I emailed another agency asking for his records, but got nothing.
So I hired a genealogist. The census records and other documents she found finally gave me a glimpse of Al’s early life. It was pretty tough from the start.
In 1916, when Al was 4, his mother — my grandmother — had a long bout of tuberculosis and entered a TB sanitarium. His father, the tailor, had been unemployed for 14 weeks. The family was so poor they were living with another family and selling their household belongings to get by. Documents suggest the family placed Al into a Jewish children’s home in New York, at least temporarily.
Al’s tough times continued after he was reunited with the family. When he was 12, his mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He quit school between the eighth and ninth grades, which was not uncommon at the time. He worked as a telegraph company messenger and a machine operator in a silk mill, following his father into what New Yorkers called the “rag trade.”
Details like those whetted my appetite for more, but my search proceeded in fits and starts. Sometimes, progress seemed to stop cold. At times, I put it all aside, or even thought about giving up. But I always came back.
My persistence was probably fortified by the fact that the editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kevin Riley, has a keen interest in stories about World War II and was urging me forward on this one.
“I know you’re going to find him,” he would say to me.
I’d better find him, I decided, if I wanted to keep Kevin’s opinion of me as a journalist intact.
So I hired a military researcher, and last September he sent me a skinny envelope of documents. Al’s Master Index Card showed he had enlisted July 28, 1942. When he joined up, he was five-foot-eight, 138 pounds and 30 years old.
There was documentation of his transfers from base to base: starting at Camp Upton in New York; from there to the Replacement Training Center in Miami; and finally, on Sept. 11, 1943, to the 440th Troop Carrier Group at a brand-new air base set amid the bleak, sprawling landscape of Alliance, Neb. He was training to be a radio operator, not a pilot, as I had vaguely pictured him. At least now I could put to rest my fear that I would discover he had somehow caused the crash.
Those facts told me something, but they seemed so cold, so bureaucratic. My uncle still seemed more real on the page than in my heart.
However, one report mentioned the name of airman Peter Lastih Jr., who accompanied my uncle’s remains back to his home in Brooklyn. I tracked him down to Chesher County in New Hampshire and tried to give him a call. He had died in 2010.
His wife, Maureen, recalled that her husband talked about escorting my uncle’s remains, but she didn’t know much about him.
“You should talk to George Mehling,” she said. “He was there and he knew your uncle.”
A promising lead
I was pumped. I called the number. Again and again and again. Left messages. Waited. Called back. Left more messages.
Finally, George — who is 91 and has survived a POW camp, a heart attack and two bouts of cancer — called me back.
“He was a nice guy,” he told me over the phone from Anderson, Ind.
The words thrilled me.
“Medium build. He talked with a deep voice, a little rough. He gave the appearance of a rough guy, but he was a pleasant person.”
Every word was golden. Every detail added a line to the sketch of my uncle.
Al, he said, was a very good radio operator. Their days were filled with classes and drills, taking off and landing the planes, flying in formation, flying low, flying through winter sandstorms, and even flying with one engine turned off to simulate battle conditions.
“He was very proud of himself,” George said. “He was the typical Brooklyn guy of that time.”
Sometimes the soldiers went down into the small town to drink, occasionally clashing with some paratroopers. But George, also a radio operator, said he didn’t pal around with Al all that much. George was closer to Peter Lastih.
Still, he remembered the crash. “We were all saddened by it. It hurt. We were down in the dumps for several days.”
Then George dropped a bombshell.
“I was supposed to be on that plane,” he said. “He filled in for me that day.”
My heart melted in my chest.
George had to fly to North Carolina to bring a plane back to the Nebraska base, and my uncle took his place as the radio operator.
“I felt it shouldn’t have been him,” he said. “But fate had it that it was.”
He owed his life to Al Schneider, he said. He felt it to this day.
Eventually I asked him what I really wanted to know.
“I think he would have been a very good uncle,” George answered. “I think he would have been very proud of you.”
The plane crash
It was nighttime when Al Schneider climbed aboard the C-53 Skytrooper, a large military plane adapted from the Douglas DC-3, a twin-engine plane favored in the early days of commercial airline flights. It could carry 28 paratroopers but was considered less flexible than the similar C-47.
The plane took off at 9:09 p.m. into a sky with broken clouds, carrying 800 gallons of fuel for a three-hour instrument training flight. Just five crew members — a pilot, two co-pilots, a crew chief and Al. The radio was checked and worked fine. It was three weeks before Christmas, and the weather called for some light snow.
The flight was supposed to be routine, but training flights were often anything but. By that time the American war effort was swinging into high gear. That same week, Germans bombed several Allied ships in Bari, Italy, killing more than 1,000 soldiers. The training crews at Alliance were being pushed to their limit. Fatigue was common and flying could be dangerous during these night missions.
After the C-53 sailed off into the night sky, clearing the radio tower, it set its sights on the wide open spaces of the Nebraska Sandhills. Spanning nearly 20,000 square miles, the Nebraska Sandhills is the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the largest contiguous prairies in the United States. It was perfect for instrument training flights because there were no city lights to orient the crew. Instead they flew in total darkness, depending solely on their instruments for direction.
At some point the crew lost control of the C-53, which pitched into an uncontrollable spin. About 60 miles southeast of base, the plane came down in a 60-degree angle. It struck the earth so hard the nose of the plane dug deep into the earth and debris scattered the length of one and a half football fields.
The crew of five — pilot Richard Murphy, co-pilot Roy Stanton, co-pilot Harold Kelly, crew chief John Darling, and Abraham Schneider, my uncle — all died.
The ignition switches and two carburetors found in the wreckage suggest that one of the plane’s two engines went out. That could indicate engine failure, or it could mean the pilot turned off one engine to practice flying a disabled plane. According to the military accident report, one of the co-pilots had only 35 hours experience on the C-53. But the most ominous note was about the plane, not the crew. The report notes that the “artificial horizon” gauge on the airplane had been “reported previously as inoperative.”
This gauge informs a pilot of the orientation of the aircraft to the earth’s horizon. It indicates whether the plane is pitching forward or rearing backward or if it’s listing to one side. It is considered a key instrument for flying at night or in bad weather. When there is a loss of control and only seconds to straighten things out, it’s critical.
The accident report listed the gauge as a “possible contributing factor” to the crash.
With that report in hand, I thought my search was complete. But just before I started writing this story, I did one last Google search. Up popped www.NebraskaAirCrash
.com, a website maintained by author Jerry Penry, an expert in military training crashes in Nebraska.
I emailed him the photo of my uncle, and he told me about meeting Jack Lowe, who was a high-schooler living on a ranch in that area in 1943. As soon as Lowe had learned of the crash, he drove his pickup to the site. He told Penry about seeing military crews sifting through the wreckage, and he remembered seeing torn up bodies.
Jerry told me he and Lowe visited the crash site together in 2007. Using a metal detector, they uncovered several pieces from the wreckage, which he agreed to send me.
Twisted, crushed and torn, they fit in the palm of my hand. The thin metal, so very light, still retains some olive green paint. It smells of dirt and oil. At first, I couldn’t get that smell out of my nostrils. A bolt, sheared in half, reveals the impact of the crash.
Holding them, they felt cold as death.
Training accidents like the one that took Al’s life were among the most overlooked sacrifices of the war. But the crashes often exposed flaws in planes and training that, when corrected, helped preserve other lives. Some may argue, but I think my uncle died a hero.
Uncle Al and me
A week ago, I flew to New York to visit Uncle Al’s grave. It took some time to find it among the sea of short, white headstones, a powerful reminder of the weight of war.
I sat with him under a big sky where a few clouds did little to stop an unforgiving sun. And, just like my family did when I was a kid, I placed some little rocks on his gravestone.
Today, I think about what all this research has meant to me. I searched for an uncle I never had. I’ve only had one uncle I was close with, my mother’s brother, and he died in 1987. A boy needs uncles. And I realize I’ve always been searching for them in other people, a mentor to lead me, someone to share fun times.
Of course, much of this musing leads back to my dad, Milton Schneider. I never knew if he was close to his brother, but he always spoke of Al with affection. I guess being a kid growing up in an orphanage, my dad had to hold on to whatever bits of family he could find.
Now when I look at a picture of my dad, I see something of my Uncle Al. They were both a little gruff, with big, tender Brooklyn hearts.
I recently asked my mom about Al. She recalled that he and my dad had spoken over the phone the day before Al was killed. Dad was glad for that.
I think of my dad’s parents, Al’s parents: Isaac and Fanny. They came over from Russia. Isaac was a soldier there, shut up in a jail as a political prisoner. He fell in love with Fanny and escaped from prison and they eloped to America in 1906.
That wasn’t a story I grew up knowing. It’s one I learned in the course of my quest for Uncle Al. I heard it from my cousin, Lill’s daughter, the one I hadn’t seen for decades. At some point in my research, I worked up the courage to call her.
I had always resented my grandfather for putting my dad in an orphanage. But my cousin told me about another side of him. When his wife died suddenly, Isaac was out of his mind with grief. He had three other children and he had little money. So maybe I forgive him a little. Or maybe not. After all, I can be a little gruff myself.
My cousin and I have talked a few times since I began my search for Uncle Al. She’s been kind and helpful, but hesitant. I hope we get closer down the line.
Maybe we will, maybe not. Time has taught me that just because people share a history, doesn’t mean they have a future. Still, I have some old pictures of her mom I’d love to show her.
As for Uncle Al, I imagine he would like what I’ve done here.
I’m pretty sure we have a future, Al and me. I’ll be able to tell stories about him. And I’ll be able to talk about my search for him. Stories about me and my Uncle Al.
That’s what I’ve been looking for all along.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
As Memorial Day approaches, the media will be full of stories about incredible acts of bravery and sacrifice on battlefields, past and present. But often overlooked on this day of remembrance are those thousands killed in training accidents. People like my Uncle Al, a sergeant in the Air Corps during World War II — a man I never knew. The older I get, the more important my family has become to me. And I’ve come to realize the past is not just a dead thing. My father’s family has always been a mystery, much of it dark. Finding a photo of his brother, Al, in his uniform became my gateway into taking a hard look at this side of my family. I came to learn about the details of Al’s death. I saw the difficulties faced by Al, my dad and the Schneider family. In the end I came to learn some things about my dad’s big heart, and his anger. I only wish I could share this research with him. He died in 2010. Then again, there are some things he might not want to talk about.
About the reporter
Craig Schneider joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997. He has exposed problems with the state child protection system, personal care homes, trucking regulations and credit-card fraud. He has also done stories on his obsession with the musical “Les Miserables” and his sad attempt to meet Bruce Springsteen.
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Next week: When a 67-year-old man became a mentor to a smart, troubled first-grader, no one could have imagined the lasting impact of their relationship.