Mom sat on Granddaddy’s right. She prayed for real, with hands folded, and she never looked up during grace except to shoot a look at a squirmy child. Dad, on the other hand, was an avowed atheist who never closed his eyes during grace. He looked down at the table, his hands unfolded, and a freshened glass of whiskey in front of him. I doubt he ever saw Granddaddy gazing past him at Ward’s portrait.
Ward de Canizares, Mom’s adored big brother, was by all accounts a good student and a good boy. Like many earnest children, he kept a “commonplace book” filled with inspiring quotations and his desires to become a model citizen. After two years studying engineering at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Army and went to flight school. Naturally, he was one of the top cadets. He seemed as close to being a perfect son as any parents could wish, but I know about him only from his school record (stellar), the accounts of his relatives, and his little sister Dorothy (my mom); everyone called her Pinky.
Ward became a pilot in the 56th Fighter Group, part of the Army’s Eighth Air Force, in Halesworth, England. The base lies on England’s easternmost hump, a one-minute flight from the English Channel. The group called itself Zemke’s Wolfpack. Led by legendary ace Col. Hubert Zemke, who had 17 kills by the end of the war, the 56th was already known as one of the most successful forces in the air. Just before Ward joined them, they notched their 100th victory, having shot down that many German planes. Ward and his group flew in the P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed “the Jug” for its awkward round shape, which resembled the milk jugs of its day.
The Jug was a heavy, slow-moving, nearly indestructible fighter. It weighed nine tons fully loaded and carried four .50 caliber machine guns on each wing, as well as a ton of bombs during ground missions. Pilots liked the plane because its cockpit was roomy and comfortable, and you could get a good view of the enemy from all angles except the rear. That cockpit contained one pilot. “You have to be on your toes to fly one of these planes,” he cheerfully wrote his parents. He was taught to swivel his head constantly in search of the enemy.
The Germans were flying the Messerschmitt 109, a svelte, lightweight fighter with machine guns mounted on the fuselage instead of the wing, allowing for far greater maneuverability. The best way for a Jug to beat an Me 109 was to fly as high as possible and then drop out of the sky like a turkey ambushing a falcon.
Of course, that only worked if you knew where the Germans were flying. Often, the 56th didn’t. Ward describes Me 109s appearing suddenly out of the clouds, often from behind. “Some character took a pot shot at me but missed,” he wrote his father in early April. “I didn’t know he was there till I saw tracers going over my wing.” He added: “Although I was shot at more than somewhat, I only got one bullet hole out near my wingtip.”
He downed two enemy planes that day. “All in all it was most exciting,” he wrote. “And I don’t mind telling you I was good and scared once or twice.” By the time he flew his last mission, my 22-year-old uncle had already destroyed three enemy planes.
He wrote those letters to his parents on thin blue airmail stationery, every day until the day he died. The last letter is dated April 9, 1944, Easter Sunday. A good Episcopalian, Ward promised his mother he would attend Easter Mass. Later that day, he flew across the English Channel with two wing mates. He helped to down one German and disabled two others. As they turned back for England, Ward saw that he was dangerously low on fuel. Suddenly, an Me 109 came shooting from behind, and Ward heard the group’s leader radio to stay on course, so his wing mates could deal with the problem.
Ward refused the order and turned with the enemy, drawing his fire so his mates could get a good shot. The German peeled off in retreat, and the two pilots got behind Ward and headed toward England.