The true life, action adventure on which you are about to embark through these pages began as an academically structured, investigatory research project in the early 1970s. In October of 2000, it became a speech presented at the reunion of former members of the 20th Air Force, in Washington, D.C.
I didn’t start out to write a book or in any way set forth a public account of what turned out to be a near, thirty-two year undertaking. Rather, the goal was to remove the ambiguity surrounding the disappearance of my uncle, Lt. Billy Weber, his commanding officer, and their crew during World War Two. At its onset, this endeavor was strictly intended as a gift for Billy’s sister, my mother Pauline, on her 65th birthday. At the time as a college student, it was the only present I could afford to give to the woman who had given so much to me.
Looking back over the thousands of pages of documents, interviews, and hand-scratched theorems, many ringed with coffee stains and aged with time, I compiled the following account. As best as such a retrospect can provide, it is a true and accurate portrayal of my journey.
On June 16th, 1992, Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, declared in a public statement while standing next to George Herbert Walker Bush, President of the United States, that the Soviet Secret Police, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, the KGB, has retained U.S. military personnel captured during the Vietnam War inside Russia’s borders. Yeltsin, perhaps thinking that this was the kind of news the American people wanted to hear in the age of Glasnost and Perestroika went on to say before he could be hurried off the stage, away from a battery of news cameras and microphones…
” And we have them from Korea and World War Two, as well.”
This is the true, life story of two of those Americans from World War Two. Two men with adoring families back home who would never again set foot on U.S. soil, how I unraveled the mystery that surrounded their disappearance, and how together in a final quest for freedom, their lives ended. One man, certified by the U.S. military as a genius, was Squadron Commander Lt. Colonel, Jack Riley. The other was a man to whom Jack referred in a letter home to his wife Hazel as being, “The best friend any man could ever have,” my uncle Lt. William Weber.
Just after sunset on March 24th, 1945, with Billy manning the pilot’s yoke and Jack as the Aircraft’s Commander, these men along with their crew, #33 of the 20th Air Force’s 398th Bomb Group, took to the air from a top-secret, Pacific island base on a ten hour, 3,200 mile round trip mission to Nagoya, Japan.
Their assignment was to fly “pathfinder –“ to be that spearheading aircraft flying an hour ahead of no fewer than four hundred and twenty-four, fully loaded, American bombers to light their way to the target. Weber and Riley had flown pathfinder no fewer than seven times before. To all around it seemed only natural that they would volunteer to do so again. But before the clock clicked two a.m. on the morning of the next day Jack, Billy, and crew #33 had been designated “MIA—Missing in Action.” For the next five years, multiple search and rescue missions spanned their entire known route. No smoke, no oil slick, no debris and no bodies were ever found. On February 1st, 1949, Billy and crew had been officially declared to have “vanished without a trace.” The nickname of the aircraft they flew was THE LIFE OF RILEY.
Don’t get me wrong. As far as history books go, there was nothing special about my uncle. Billy Weber was just another Joe, a cabinetmaker’s son, a brother, a friend, a husband, a memory taking its first steps toward fading as I took mine coming into this world. A first-generation American, Billy was like tens of thousands of other young men who had voluntarily heeded our nation’s call to arms in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Imbued with the deep-seated principals of love and human compassion by parents who had fled Russia at the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weber home built by Billy’s, German-born father in eastern Washington State, exuded from every beam, the ideals of freedom and service to others. Freedom meant everything to Billy. It was a freedom not just to fly but to soar, to not just dream but to engage fully and passionately in every measure of life his heart and mind so desperately sought. Stripping away his humble, small town, beginnings there remaining deep within him throughout his life could be found a pining. Before his enlistment, Billy sat alongside his aging father, once a young lieutenant in the Czar’s Army who fought against communist oppression in the country that had adopted him to be told of what life was like living in perpetual fear in a whirlwind of tyranny. Sometime later as Billy set out from his parent’s home to enlist, he silently pledged to his father— and perhaps, far more importantly to himself— that he would do all he could to rid the world of such abiding cruelty. That was it, nothing more. That is, as far as history books go.
THE HUNT FOR THE LIFE OF RILEY:
“Tell the truth now, Kenny.”
From the moment I could walk, my sister, born a full decade before me, loved to posture my ever-in-need, nurturing soul into a psychologically gripping and indeed, emotionally harrowing corner whenever anything in my parent’s household broke, was damaged, went missing, or simply drew our mom and dad’s attention. No matter what the circumstance, she’d point the finger at me.
“Tell the truth now, Kenny.”
The problem is, I never knew the truth, nor did my mom and dad, aunts, uncles, the U.S. military, its civilian authorities, and certainly not my big sister, Jo Anne. Still, whenever I acted out during my developmental years or even did something right for a change, my measure was taken by way of an on-the-spot, comparative analysis to a man whose face in a photograph sat ever-present atop our living room mantel, William G. Weber, my Uncle Billy, our “family’s face.”
I am the family face; flesh perishes, I live on,
projecting trait and trace through time to times anon,
and leaping from place to place over oblivion.
Thomas Hardy, a 19th Century poet.
When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, short stories or “cliffhangers” were all the rage at movie theaters throughout the country. Each week those “to be continued” sagas kept youngsters like my friends and I eagerly cutting lawns, washing cars, doing our chores….anything and everything necessary to have enough money to buy that theater ticket for next Saturday’s matinee. I guess you could say I was born into a family with its very own “cliffhanger.” At the center of it was a handsome man with a generous smile who was forever unwilling to be the one seen standing back with his hands in his pockets.
When he was in junior high, local newspapers reported Billy had saved a neighborhood kid from drowning in an agricultural windmill. The frightened fourth grader had been caught between the windmill’s sails face down in the water, unable to move. Billy jumped into the icy flow, unhinged the sail that had captured the child and freed him.
Even years later, by the time I came around, neighbors would beckon me over wanting to share with me the remembrances of their favorite, “Hometown Son.” In one instance that comes to mind, my family and I were celebrating the holiday season at my grandparent’s home. Preparing for the upcoming Thanksgiving feast, relatives from near and far had gathered. It was an unusually warm and bright late-November day. I was carrying a few last minute necessities home from the nearby corner grocery store for my mom. Old man Stevens and his wife Bonnie who lived across the street whistled and waved, beckoning me to step over to them. Standing by their fence, the Stevens made certain I clearly understood one thing:
“You know, young man if you keep to the straight and narrow, you’re going to grow up to be one of the good ones just like that uncle of yours. You got it son. I see it in you. You got the same right stuff that Billy had.”
Another neighbor down the block, Mr. Bennett, a tall, slightly bent, African-American who worked at the Continental Can Company who stopped by seeing that my dad was home. I remember watching as the two grieved over a blown head gasket on Mr. Bennett’s’39 Ford, pick-up. Soon I heard…
“Too bad that brother-in-law of yours, Weber isn’t here. He’d have this old jalopy fixed and up and running in a jiffy. Where is he anyhow? Has anyone figured out a yet what happened to good o’ Billy boy?”
As I grew, family tales of my uncle also grew. One relative was convinced that Army Lt. Weber was a tank commander during the Battle of the Bulge.
I remember another who, one afternoon, came bursting through Grandma Weber’s backroom, kitchen door professing with arms waving as if he were Spartacus leading a slave revolt, that…
“I saw him! I’m telling you I saw him. He was right there in front of my eyes. Right out front, he was. It was Billy alight. No mistaken those broad shoulders of his. He was in Italy, a Buck Private carrying a bazooka up a hill. I’d seen him fall. Shot dead he was.”
Periodic lapses in decorum from the far side of the family were common faire throughout my early years.
When another uncle, the one with two years at a community college under his belt, thought I was out of earshot, he’d whisper to the adults huddled around him that he knew for a fact Billy had been on loan to British Intelligence and was still alive, a victim of amnesia.
One summer afternoon that following year, I was dragged down into the sweltering recesses of my grandparent’s basement by my Cousin Greg, a tall, lanky kid three years my senior. There Greg told me he knew more about Uncle Billy than all the grown-ups combined. He made me pinky-swear and threatened to turn me into mincemeat if I shared with anyone the inside “skinny” he was about to impart. According to my fair-haired cous Uncle Billy left this earth in a ball of flames over Guadalcanal early in the war, flying right seat to Terry of Terry and the Pirates fame. Until I was about ten, I liked that one the best. That is, until I visited Shep’s corner drug store one afternoon, hand-in-hand with my dad. As we walked by the newsstand, there it was. That’s when I found out that a swashbuckling band of World War Two aerial aces known as “Terry and the Pirates” were nothing more than the wistful imaginings of an aging comic-book writer.
But William Weber… my Uncle Billy, a man to whom up through my early teens I was continuously compared to, was a genuine, living, human being. As far back as I can recall I found it deeply disturbing that so many people could share with me intricate details of how he lived but no one could tell me where he was or what was keeping my uncle from coming home?
When I asked my parents, aunts and uncles they would say, “You’ll find out young man when you grow up.” Odd, isn’t it? As it turned out, they were right.
The real-life skills possessed by both Weber and Riley were imperative to both sides of the war effort and acted throughout my quest, as the proverbial bread crumbs. Both men were exceptionally talented, mechanical engineers. Jack had been academically trained. My uncle began his military career as an aircraft mechanic. At the time of their disappearance, both men were U.S. Army Air Corps officers, both were twenty-seven years old but far more importantly, both men were pilots… pilots who were not only hand-picked to fly the largest and most effective killing platform the world had ever seen up to that point, but given enough time and the “proper incentive” they could take it apart and reverse engineer it. That aircraft was the one that won the war: the “LR”, Long Range, “VR” Very Heavy B-29 bomber, the Superfortress. For a nation’s leader like Soviet Premiere Joseph Stalin who didn’t have one, its absence left a gaping hole in Russia’s war chest.
Oh yeah, and there was that one other thing, the one left off of Lt. William Weber’s military service record, his “201” file as well as his pre-induction, FBI background check. Billy spoke fluent Russian… but not like a well-versed academician but rather with the flair of quiet confidence like that of a former nanny to the children of a Saratov, Russian Oligarch, Billy’s mom—my grandmother— Stephanie.
1982, August 10th, 7:15pm, the telephone rings:
“Hey, I need a favor.”
I recognized the voice immediately.
“Let’s see. Let me guess. You were caught rolling a drunk for a swig of gin, lingering too long outside the men’s bathroom at the airport… international terrorism, espionage …?”
“You know me too well.”
“I do. You’re me with boobs.”
“That’s why we were only good for one another in the sack.”
“Funny, I thought we did our best work as research analysts.”
“I’m out of the country for the next few weeks. I would like for you to sit in on an interview for me. You’re still living in Manassas, right?”
“You know I walked away from the life you chose to lead. I’m neither qualified nor authorized to…”
“There is this guy. I brought him into the country. He’s applying for U.S citizenship. His case is being heard the day after tomorrow. He’s clean, no strings, nothing sticky, nothing messy. Do you know where New Market, is?”
Some say that World War Two is no longer relevant. I say it is that point from whence freemen even today, take their measure.
With eighty-five million people dead as a result of that epic episode in mankind’s history, not all battles were fought in the open, on beachheads or in forests along the Rhine. Many of the battles that shaped our lives then and still today took place in broad daylight on main street America in your hometown and mine…in card rooms, backdoor brothels and, darkened alleyways between enemies and allies, alike. These were the battles waged by the world’s intelligence agencies, the OSS, the forerunner to America’s CIA, Britain’s MI-6, the Gestapo, Russia’s KGB and GRU, each plying their trade to reshape the American landscape. Long after cannon fire ceased, these wars waged on.
1982, eighty-three miles from Washington, D.C., in the basement of the Fellowship Church, in New Market, Virginia. August 12th, 6:14a.m.
Just like that, it was over.
“Great! Okay, done.”
From my standpoint, the meeting had taken less than a handful of minutes.
The English-speaking voice with its fake Southern drawl came from behind where I was sitting originating from the tall, red-haired man with the boyish grin who’d been clearly involved in this proceeding long before I arrived. I was told by the young woman who encouraged my attendance, a collegiate friend of mine to call this guy, “Buck” if I needed to address him at all. Buck was wearing the light-tan, tropical worsteds of a U.S. Army Infantry officer, a captain with all the appropriate decorations but that was clearly neither his specialty nor his rank. The colonel whose rank it actually was, had been ordered by Buck to leave the moment I breached the basement door’s threshold. I distinctly remember the look on the colonel’s face. Inadvertently brushing my shoulder, he apologized as he passed by me.
“Excuse me, sir.” He offered, setting forth a clear and steadfast nod of respect for me.
I don’t know who this spit and polish colonel thought I might be but I can guarantee one thing I wasn’t even close…not even in the ballpark. I was just a guy doing a friend a favor…or so I thought. As ordered, I took the colonel’s seat to the right of the table behind which the Russian intelligence officer seeking asylum, sat.
There are two reasons why Jack and Billy never came home. The first is easy. The second well, that may take a little bit longer to explain.