The Story of Lt. Fred Dees
Growing up in Burgaw, I was clearly aware of who I was, and who I was named for. I was named for my Granddaddy Fred and Uncle Fred, brother of my father, the eldest son of my grandmother, and the young Lieutenant who was killed during World War Two. I have always felt honored to carry the name and proud that I could in a small way be connected to the Great War.
I had been told that Uncle Fred was a Lieutenant and a pilot in the Army Air Force and had flown the B-26 Marauder, which was a fighter-bomber. At one time I had a wood carved model of a B-26 which showed it to be a twin engine plane that had extra machine-gunners on the plane. It was only a couple of years ago that I had researched this plane and found it to be a rather large plane that would carry a bomb load and was not in the fighter category. It had several crew members but I did not recall just how many.
I never knew exactly what happened and was only told that he died in a plane crash and his body had washed up on the coast in Florida. The body had been returned to Burgaw and a funeral had been conducted. I had never asked what happened but just sort of “understood” that it was a plane crash and he did not survive. I did not look for gory details as I was satisfied that Uncle Fred had died in the service of his country and it was an honorable death. I was proud of the fact that Uncle Fred’s name is listed on the Wall of Honor at UNC Chapel Hill, of UNC students killed in the service of their country and also on the Wall of the Battleship USS North Carolina in Wilmington honoring North Carolinians who had died serving their country.
On June 26th of this year I returned home from work and had a message on my phone. I observed an out of state phone number and was prepared for a sales call or something of that nature. I was taken aback by the message I heard.
“This is Tracy Miller and I am trying to find relatives of Fred Dees who was killed in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942. He would have been born in 1920 and was from North Carolina. If you are related to him, or know someone who is, would you please call me.”
I immediately put my mail away and sat down at the desk to call this person. I was still thinking it had to be some scam but could not figure out why someone would be calling and have this sort of information.
The call was answered by Tracy who said she was part of a group that was looking into a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico and wanted to know if I was related to Fred Dees, born in 1920. I told her that Fred Dees was my uncle, my father’s oldest brother, and that I was named for him. I inquired as to why she was calling and she then gave me the story.
She was part of the group called TBT&J (stands for Tom, Brian, Tim, and Jon) that was looking for planes that would have left Cuba during the revolution involving Castro and Battista in the late 1950s. Battista had fled Cuba on January 1, 1959 with four B-26’s headed for the United States. Only three of the planes reached the U.S. and the missing plane supposedly contained gold, maybe as much as one billion dollars in today’s market, and had crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. While looking through the Gulf waters the group found a crash site. The divers looked through the wreckage trying to find something that would give the identity of the plane. There was nothing that showed clearly but in some of the radio equipment there were some numbers that were used to trace the plane. It was determined from the radio equipment that the plane was in fact the B-26 that Uncle Fred had been co-piloting when it crashed. The engines were found some distance from the wings and it was apparent that the plane had gone through a violent crash and had not just landed on the water.
Tom O’Brien, head of the group looking for the Cuban treasure, said that during the research of this plane, records were found that said the plane had crashed in the Gulf of Mexico and only two of the six crew members had been found. O’Brien’s group wanted to show that the plane had crashed due to mechanical problems and not pilot error as had been noted in the report.
Talking with veterans of WWII that flew the B-26 revealed that particular plane had more than its share of mechanical difficulties, and until the plane received stronger engines later in 1942 and 1943 it, suffered many problems. “One a day in Tampa Bay” was the slogan of the B-26, which was also called “the widow maker”. There were many pilots that transferred away from this plane during the early years of the war. The B-26 became a better plane in the months to come but during the early years it took a good pilot and some luck to keep the plane in the air.
The TBT&J group got the accident report of the plane and also the names of the crew that perished that night in November 1942. They were looking for relatives of the crewmembers as they had planned a memorial service since finding the plane. I was helpful in that I had records from the crash that my Grandmother, Ellis Dees Biberstein had received after the crash. I was able to give the TBT&J group all of the crewmember’s names, their hometowns, and their next of kin in 1942. They were able to use this to locate some family members.
Crew members were: Pilot, Lt. Donald Vail, Macomb, Ill; Co-Pilot, Lt. Fred Dees, Burgaw, NC; Lt. Louis Miles, Queens, NY; Sgt. William Kittiko, McKeesport, Pa; Sgt. Milton Newton, Davidson County, Tenn; and Sgt. Richard Treat, Essex County, Mass.
The B-26, with these crew members left Page Field, Ft. Myers, Florida at 6:10 pm on November 16, 1942 on a training mission. Fifty minutes after takeoff the air base received a radio call from the B-26 that the crew was bailing out. That was the last anyone heard from the plane.
Search teams found the bodies of Lt. Vail and Uncle Fred on November 20, 1942. Uncle Fred and Lt. Vail had been found in the Gulf of Mexico with their parachutes deployed. Uncle Fred’s watch had stopped 7:05 and it is unlikely the watch continued running long after the crash . Comments on the death certificate (there was no autopsy) tend to show that the pilots had died from the crash, possible drowning victims, but that their bodies did not appear to have suffered from a crash. The remains of the other four crewmembers were never found.
Speculation as to what happened are many and varied. Knowing now that Uncle Fred died trying to escape a malfunctioning aircraft leaves me with varied feelings also. When men prepare for war, they practice at blowing up things and eliminating the enemy. Equipment malfunctions that are part of the deadly training brings home the dangers that servicemen face each and every day as they prepare themselves to protect our country. Ballplayers get hurt during practice and soldiers will be killed as they prepare to engage in deadly combat. Sometimes, things happen that shouldn’t, but they happen.
From the records of the crash and from letters written by Uncle Fred to Grandmother, other details were brought home. I had always been told that Uncle Fred had been the pilot of the plane that crashed but the records clearly showed that Lt. Vail was the pilot and Uncle Fred was the co-pilot. It seems that during this time in 1942 there was a need for B-26’s in active duty. While Uncle Fred was training in a Pilot’s class, he was already qualified for co-pilot duty. His group was just a few hours short of being qualified as pilots and therefore cleared for active duty. There was a drawing held of Uncle Fred’s training class, and 17 of his class members were selected to become co-pilots and begin training with other men to form new crews and leave for active duty very soon. Uncle Fred would now be assigned as a co-pilot for a short time until he had more flight time and then he, and the other co-pilot’s would be upgraded to pilots.
Uncle Fred had written Grandmother and his brother Bobby Dees, that he had been selected to join another group that would be leaving soon for active duty. He said that active duty was what he had been working toward and that the time was going to be soon. He told them not to worry about him, that he was comfortable with his faith and knew the Lord would be with him. He also told them that the training would take long hours as they prepared to leave for active duty and he might not have time to write.
All of this history came back as I talked with Tracy Miller that day. It was all unexpected and since Uncle Fred had been found and returned home I had never thought about the other crew members, or where the plane was. This information helped to close the chapter that had never ended in 1942. To help bring closure there was a memorial service on July 6, 2008 for the families of the crewmembers of the B-26 Marauder, the divers, and researchers that worked on this crash site. The ceremony was held in Ft. Myers, Florida in a hotel near Page Field, the air field where Uncle Fred left on a training mission at twilight on November 16, 1942.