Bridges of Love

A Love Story Spanning Generations
by Dennis (Bear) Hayman


My name is Dennis E. Hayman. I am a relative of William M. Miller, a WWII P-47 pilot with the 412th Fighter Squadron, 373rd Fighter Group, 9th AAF. 1Lt. Miller was killed in action on Christmas Day 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. I was very young at the time, yet so close to him that I still feel a bond with him. His memory has colored my entire life - even unto this day. Just after the turn of the century, following a long search for information about my uncle, I was successful in locating members of his squadron. They have quite a bond with each other that has also lasted these many years. They still hold annual reunions and were gracious enough to invite my wife and I to join them and to become members of their group. 

To me this was a great honor. I've learned a lot about them in the course of my search. I was not only impressed with their combat record, which was very outstanding, but especially with their values today. To spend time with them and their families each year is a blessing for us. They personify the positive spirit that overcame so much trauma and turned it into a lasting personal peace. This spirit I also feel within the people of Belgium who have helped me in my search for information about my uncle and his comrades. It is still there and still powerful. What is it that has sustained this loving feeling over all this time? I think this connection is worth nurturing and exploring today when we are once again faced with overcoming our fears of the world situation.
There was a time, near Christmas in 1944, when some young American pilots and some even younger Belgian children came together in ways that seem to have touched their lives forever. I can relate to that very well, since I was about the same age as the children of Dongelberg, when my uncle was hugging them close and touching their lives as he had touched mine.
For six months during the fall and winter of 1944-1945, this unit was stationed at Le Culot Airfield near Louvain, Belgium. The officers of the 412th Fighter Squadron were living at the Castle de Dongelberg, about 7 miles from the airfield. There were several buildings on the grounds. The pilots lived in the Villa, while close by there was an orphanage located in the Chateau and one smaller building. Each day there was much interaction between the men and the children. Not all of these children were orphans. Some were placed there temporarily due to their father being killed in the war and the mother being unable to support them. Others were Jewish children being hidden from the Gestapo. The orphanage, Oeuvre Nationale de L'Enfance (O.N.E), though no longer at Dongelberg, is still in existence today.
The 373rd Fighter Group (of which the 412th was a part) had become rather famous in the press due to their successful ground attacks against the Germans, in support of General Patton's army. This Week Magazine sent a reporter and photographer to do a story on them. I have attached the text of this story since it so aptly describes the relationship between the children and the officers. The newspaper story of this relationship was complete with pictures of the happy faces of the adults and children alike as they helped each other survive the very stressful emotions of daily life in a war zone.
Glen Noyes, one of the pilots of the 412th, recalls that they decided to throw a Christmas party for the children of the orphanage. (There are a few surviving pictures of this event also):
  "We collected all of our Belgian francs and whatever we could use for bartering. A volunteer contingent went to Louvain and bought every toy, doll and game that they could find. We wrapped the toys until we ran out of materials including gift-wrappings from home and pages from the Stars & Stripes, the official newspaper of the Allied armed forces.

When the toys were ready, we raided the mess hall and collected some Spam, coffee, marmalade, peanut butter and other items. We even included some liqueurs for the Sisters that had been given to us by General Patton. (His troops "captured" stocks of booze from the Germans who had "liberated" it from the French. General Patton passed it on to us as an expression of thanks for the support provided his forces by P-47 pilots.)

Ev Peters, Bill Mather, Bill Miller and several other pilots delivered the goodies to the orphans. It was a festive occasion. As the gifts were passed out, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That was the day I SAW Santa Claus."


The above exerpted from Chapter 26 "Watching the Bulge Grow" by Col. Glen T. Noyes, USAF (Ret.)

The men talk about the beauty of those moments away from the war and these feelings have carried forward to this time. Speaking as one of the relatives of the men who were there, I have been affected by this myself. Contemplating my uncle spending some of his last moments in happiness with these children has brought a sense of peace to me. But what of the children themselves? What became of them?
While I was searching for information about my uncle, I briefly communicated with a woman in England who was separated from her family during the bombing of London. She, along with thousands of other children, was sent to the countryside for safety. But she was very lonely and frightened. She told of a Christmas party that was given by an American bomber group and that each child was assigned an American airman. She said that to this day, she still thinks of her American and wishes that she could find him to see if he survived the war and to tell him how much his day with her meant to her life. That really made me think. I had seen the effects of the children on the American airmen of the 412th Fighter Squadron and knew how much the kids meant to them. I told her that I was sure that she had made just as big an impression on her American as he had on her. I wished her well in her search.
So, I began to ponder the notion of reuniting the children of the orphanage at Dongelberg with the men of the 412th FS. It could be that some of the children wouldn't even remember those days, but perhaps some like the woman from England, have memories that would like to be fulfilled. I know that the men of the 412th would like to connect with these children again, even if only one could be found. There would be a physical link with a time of heightened emotions. There is no commercial reason for doing this. It is just a labor of love. If I could achieve this goal, it would be as if I had honored all that my uncle and the other men of the 412th stood for. It would be something good to have come out of a war whose survivors may still not have achieved closure. I know that some of the other relatives that I have talked with also feel the same. There is something very special about this story. Yet, it needs a happy ending.
First I needed to find these children - so that we could ask them if they were interested in meeting with the men of the 412th Fighter Squadron. I provided some pictures of some of the children and a few of their first names to my friend Ludo Van Moorleghem of Belgium. Ludo has taken much of his own time to help seek information for me. He has introduced me to others in Belgium who have graciously helped also. How I came to know Ludo and others in the search is a long story in itself, and we often felt like we were looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Many avenues were pursued in this search and finally, in 2004, we have found several of the children from Dongelberg. Some are living in Belgium still and one is living in the United States. They have all indicated a desire to meet with the men (and families) of the 412th at the annual reunion in September of this year, in Laurel, MD. Perhaps more will be found!
Many of the people who helped or were interested were young people in Belgium. The Belgian people seem to have a wonderful regard for Americans who served in the war and liberated their country. Lately we do not seem to have too many friends left in the world, but I cannot say enough about the people of this country. Many families adopt the gravesites of American service men that were killed in Belgium. My uncle is buried in Belgium, not far from where he fell from the sky, and a family there lovingly tends his gravesite. When I received a letter from these wonderful people, I sent them a picture of Bill with my thanks.
These things make a difference in our lives!
The world today once more seems to be consumed with fear. To many, this fear is like a vast ocean that seems impossible to safely cross or even ignore. Yet it has been said that we aren't created out of fear. We are the manifestation of the spirit of Love. How then does fear come into play so prominently in our lives? We need to understand it better. Could fear be a tool we have created to explore and define the power of our Love more clearly? The pilots and the children forged this bridge once. Can they do it again?
I can see this vast sea of fear and now it affects us all. I can also see so many islands of Love rising above the tumultuous waves. Each of us becomes one of those islands when we focus on Love instead of the other side of the coin. As we gaze over the expanse of fear, we encounter other islands of Love. When we reach out to those others we form spiritual and physical bridges of Love.
The connections would continue to grow as bridge after bridge links island after island of Love. Soon the whole of Mother Earth could be so covered with loving spans that fear's influence will recede.
Perhaps this is the real mission that Bill Miller has sent me on. I look at all the love received from so many people involved in this search as having created bridges between us. In our love we are much closer than the miles would seem to define.
Perhaps, as he promised me, Bill has taught me to fly after all - in a much broader sense of the word. Perhaps, this work of love is helping him come safely home at last. Perhaps he will bring his other brothers of the air home with him to participate in this mission.
I know we will all feel their presence this year at the reunion, as we always do. Many members who had survived the war have left this level by now. But many still remain, and they still hold their heads high. You can tell who they are by everything they do. They never give up. It shows even in their traditional signing off of their letters: Peace, Blue Skies, and Keep 'em Flying!
As of this date, January 10, 2004, at least seven women have come forward to identify themselves as having been at the orphanage at the time that the 412th officers were there. There may be more coming. Interestingly, the children of Dongelberg also held reunions until a few years ago when the person planning them died. The people we've talked to have been confirmed by the orphanage records. One woman has recognized herself and her sister as being in pictures that I obtained from the men of the 412th and sent to Belgium. We go bravely forward to the September 2004 reunion. We hope to find a way to bring these people together here in the US. It will be a glorious event, filled with the love of these bridges that have spanned continents and so many years.
This is an exciting turn of events! the goal is not yet achieved. I must seek a way to bring these folks together in the United States. We will need to find a way to finance the Belgian contingent's travel as well as recording this event so they may each have record for their families.
I am seeking help from interested parties in finishing the construction of these bridges of love. Perhaps in so doing the story will be shared with others and enrich their lives as it has mine. - End.

Memoir Article:
McGehee's Killers, by Carl Carmer. Photograhs by Toni Frissell. Published in This Week Magazine July 1, 1945, Los Angeles Times Magazine Section.

They were the hottest lot of fighter pilots on the Western Front.

But it was a different story back at the orphanage . . .

The first time I saw the orphanage the sky was gray behind it and its two tall towers were darkly reflected in the ribbon of rain-wet asphalt the led to its door. I had ridden many miles that afternoon in a jolting staff car -- through towns whose names had meant much to Americans like me in another war - Liege, Namur, Louvain. Now I listened wearily as the Public Relations Officer who was my guide did his duty.
The architect who had built the orphanage, he said, had had the good sense to make use of the big medieval tower to my left, a relic of other days but solid, well-built and beautiful. He had constructed, as I could see, a twin tower over to my right and had connected the two by a low, tasteful and well-planned central building. The youngsters who were old enough to walk, the officer explained, lived here.
If I would look along the sides of the quadrangle of lawn behind me, he went on, I would see the modern one-story, glass-walled cubicles which housed the little babies. And at the far end those brick buildings, once dormitories for older children and the staff, now housed "the hottest bunch of Thunderbolt pilots on the Western Front."
"I like orphanages," I said, "but after all I was sent over here as a correspondent for the Army Air Forces. Perhaps we'd better go up there and meet those pilots so that I can get to work."
"You'll meet 'em all right," said the Public Relations Officer, "and you won't have to walk way up there. Here's the Old Man now."
The Old Man, striding toward us in the soft rain, proved to be Col. James C. McGehee, 34, of Birmingham, Ala. It seemed strange to me to be hearing his deep southern accent in the orphan asylum in Belgium - strange and very comforting.
We picked up Toni Frissell (The good-lookin' photographer) at McGhee's headquarters and drove her and her paraphernalia to the other end of the asylum grounds. There we got out and climbed the steps.
As McGehee opened the door a sudden flood of sound burst forth. In the big main hall waited about 50 little children. At sight of us they began to talk excitedly and some of them ran forward, arms outstretched. Others stood in shy circles around three smiling nurses. As I picked up a squirming, giggling little boy, the first of the pilots arrived - dashing up the steps, shouting as he came.
"Yvonne!" he yelled, grabbing a tiny brown-eyed morsel and setting her on his shoulder. "Ou est voire soerur?"
"Elle est malade," said Yvonne solemnly.
"Cutest trick in seven counties," said the pilot brazenly, "This one's sister."
"Je suis 'cute' aussi," said Yvonne placidly.
"You bet you are!" said the pilot.
As Toni Frissell began to take photographs of the children, other pilots came in through the big doors, grabbed up their favorites and began to talk. The children searched the pockets of their uniforms with practiced little hands, looking for candy rations.
"We had the fanciest Christmas party you ever saw," said the Old Man, comforting a youngster who was a little scared by Miss Frissell's flash bulbs. "The pilots saved their candy rations for months before."
Twilight had come and the pilots helped march the children into their dining room. Then, with the ease born of habit, they urged the youngsters to eat, aided by the nurses in serving them. After the meal, children and pilots wandered into the high airy dormitory and there was a gay putting-to-bed with many exchanges of confidences.
"Time for chow," said the Old Man finally. "We'd better be on our way."
I walked toward headquarters with a young major who introduced himself as Major Robert D'Amico, of Syracuse, N.Y.
"What are the folks back home thinking about us?"
"They worry some," I said.
"About our safety?"
"Well," I said, "all this training in destruction and killing. Some folks say you'll come back violent - still killers."
Major D'Amico laughed.
"McGehee's Killers!" he said. "Did you hear that Colonel? I'm going to paint a sign to hand over headquarters door 'McGehee's Killers.'"
The Old Man joined us.
"We've been lucky," he said. "Living with these kids as we do. It sort of keeps things easy. I know what they're saying back home - but I don't know of any heavy psychiatric problems in my outfit."
As we walked in to the mess hall I made a mental note to tell the folks back home what to do when the boys get back from overseas. Just have Junior and baby sister standing at the gate. It will keep things easy.   The End