My Grampa Navy -–– called for his career –– had two brothers who died young. One was a handsome rogue, killed, as the story goes, in a bar brawl over somebody else's wife.
The other brother was a hero, a fighter-pilot who died during WWII when his plane crashed over the Everglades.
I have no reason to doubt that Grampa Navy told the truth, or that Mumsie and her sister remembered the family histories any differently than they were told, but it's the nature of stories to evolve.
The name of Grampa Navy's grandmother, Hepsie Vaughter, as case in point. So researching the genealogy, I took both brothers' stories with a grain of salt.
Focusing on Uncle Buck, the nice brother (how very East of Eden that seems), I searched for his fighter pilot records on Ancestry, the National Personnel Records Service, the National Archives, Folds5, casualty lists, et cetera, all to no avail.
Of course I only knew that he was likely born in Tennessee or Georgia, sometime around 1910. That his name was really George. I knew his parents' names and those of his brothers. But George Wheeler is a common name.
So I went to the basics: the census. Grampa Navy was born near Copperhill, Tennessee. His father was born in Ducktown, Tennessee and worked the Burra Burra Mine as an acid man. (Dang!)
My sister and Mumsie stopped by Copperhill to visit kin on their way south in the 1980's.
Sarah said the place was dire: the hill of copper laid open by mining, the land as barren and dead as the surface of the moon, effluent pumping through those hollers, cars abandoned in weedy front yards.
Decades later, the whole area was transformed for the Olympic Games, the river channeled and remodeled into a kayaking and canoe course, and the mine terraformed back into something human-scaled.
All of which explains why Grampa Navy and his family moved to Miami. I only knew it happened when he was fairly young, and sure enough, there they are.
The little family of five sprawling across two pages of the US Census of 1930 1930: Dad a construction worker, Mom at home, George –– Uncle Buck! –– a truck driver at 20, son Ed (teen Grampa Navy!) a 17-year-old theatre usher, and 13-year-old future no-goodnik Dennis not employed.
With these birthdates and places of birth for both Grampa Navy's brothers, Ancestry.com. led me to Uncle Buck's 1934 marriage to Ina Pearl. Otherwise known as Aunt Betty, for which we can't blame her. In Mumsie's version, anyhow, she was Betty by nature, Betty by name.
And there the trail went cold for me. The mystery of Uncle Buck's death remained unsolved (or at least undocumented) for years. In a 1938 city directory, he's selling insurance, living in what later became Little Havana.
In the 1940 census, he and Betty are still in Miami. He's a tire service man, and they have Betty's 10-year-old niece Nina, plus a boarder, Orban Strickland, living with them. Looking at the handwriting, I speculate whether Orban is related to neighbor Hokes Stickland, a neighbor.
The censuses (I pause here to look up how to correctly spell more than one census. Censuses it is, but censusses is also acceptable, as is a plural census) from after 1940 have not yet been made public, so I needed to seek elsewhere for intel.
Opinion among my elders varied, but they thought Uncle Buck's plane went down in 1944.
I kept poking at the question and –– thank you Dawn N for the assist –– Newspapers.com eventually turned up the goods.
A later article in the Miami News corrected the location of the plane crash to Melbourne Florida rather than Melbourne Australia. It's an understandable mistake, especially as the crash occurred during the height of the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands on the other side of the world. Plus, it was a Miami paper, so Melbourne might have seemed veritable Antipodes.
I'm satisfied. I'll call Uncle Buck, a Naval airman, a war hero. I don't know his rank yet, but I don't believe he was at the wheel. Melbourne, Florida, by the way, is located north of Miami on the east coast of Florida, not very close to the Everglades, but it's at least the same state as the family legend. It might even count as the Bermuda Triangle.
There's so much left untold from the paper record. It's interesting to note that Hokes Strickland, his former neighbor, is among the pallbearers. I consider Aunt Betty, so cheerful in these sepia toned images with her young husband, widowed at 34. The good news is that after the war, she married again and is carried away by the tides of time.
Memorial Day Update May 2021
Thanks to alert reader, Ken H., I got hold of the official Navy accident report.
A training flight out of the Banana River Naval base (we race our sailboat on that section of the river each December!) crashed on landing after the failure of an engine. Five survivors, seven fatalities. The survivors paddled to shore in an inflatable lifeboat.
As I read it, G.R. Wheeler, Uncle Buck, was not the pilot. He's listed as an "AS," an aviation equipment specialist, acting as "NFO" a naval flight officer on the plane. An NFO, as the inter webs inform, was often a specialist in a weapons or sensor system. A tragic accident, but still, as Guy, the nice guy at accident-report.com said, they gave their all, which makes them heroes.
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