It’s not very often that I get to take time off from the busy duties of life to visit with a friend or relative.
About five years ago, I dropped by my older cousin’s house in Brushton. Her name is Ruth Stark Larkin. Her father, David Elder Stark, and my great-grandmother, Lillian Stark McGibbon, were brother and sister.
Ruth and I had seen each other off and on through the years at family events, and we worked together at Bombay Slipper in the 1960s. She was personal secretary to the owners. Even though she was 93 and I was 61 the day I visited, there was no generation gap when we laughed, enjoyed a cup of tea and took time to catch up on our lives.
It’s funny how you think you know somebody but discover you really don’t know them after all. Our visits always came around to the “old days,” her memories of my grandparents, my father and other family members.
We’d share photo albums and envelopes full of old family pictures. She’d identify them for me, I’d write on the backs, then I’d borrow them to makes copies. One day, after viewing familiar family photographs, she pulled out an unfamiliar one, a man named Cecil Bates.
I had never heard of him and was surprised when she told me he wasn’t related. A tear began to run down her wrinkled cheek. I knew Cecil was somebody special to Ruth, but I also knew she was happily married to Lester Larkin for 35 years before he died. This was a mystery.
The picture was of a very handsome man in uniform and, through watery eyes, she began to tell me about Cecil Bates, a story I am sure many can relate to.
Cecil was from Fort Jackson, in St. Lawrence County, and came to work in Moira, just up the road from Brushton, Ruth’s native town. He stayed with his sister, Bernice Knapp, one of Ruth’s close friends.
Ruth was sweet on Cecil, and Cecil was very sweet on Ruth. They spent as much time together as social graces allowed in those days. World War II started to vamp up, and she was surprised when Cecil decided it was his duty to join the fight.
“He was the one for me,” she said in a broken voice. “We were so happy together.”
He trained at Maxwell Field, Ala. A newspaper clipping states that “Cadet Cecil Robert Bates enlisted in the Army, Dec. 28, 1941, in the Air Corps, and accepted as an aviation cadet in 1942.”
Ruth traveled to Alabama to visit Cecil. She remembered that saying “goodbye” was one of the hardest things she ever had to do, but they made plans for another visit.
Not long after training, he was sent overseas, stationed in Italy, and assigned to be the pilot of a bomber crew. I was not prepared for her next statement: “He was killed when his plane was shot down off the coast of Germany.”
I had no idea she had lived with such sad memories, losing one whom she had planned to spend her life with. I asked her if she had any details of the crash and she said no, but one of Cecil’s crew members had sent her a very precious gift after his death.
“Before Cecil went on the bombing mission that day, he told this man that if anything happened to him, to “mail this to Ruth,” she shared.
She opened her keepsake box and showed me a very pretty engagement ring. She couldn’t remember the man’s name but said he was from New Hampshire. I told her I would search the Internet to see if I could find any information on that man, the crew or Cecil.
Enter Gene Moxley. After “Googling” Cecil Bates on the Internet, I came up with several hits, including that his name is listed on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The sponsors who submitted Cecil’s name were Gene and Mary Moxley of Missouri. I figured they were probably relatives so I “Googled” again (thank God for Google) and found their address and phone number, and called them.
I explained why they were receiving a phone call from a New York woman they didn’t know. Gene was most gracious to explain that his wife had an uncle who served in the same squadron as Cecil, and they had submitted the names of all the group’s members. Gene has also spent years researching the unit and has compiled and printed two books memorializing their service.
He said, “Cecil Bates was a real hero. He stayed with the plane so his crew could bail out.”
That was a shock. I told Gene I wanted to buy one of his books. After receiving it, “The 465th Remembered,” I combed the pages and found that Cecil was indeed a hero, not only by Gene’s estimation, but by crew members who survived and spent time in a prison camp but lived to tell the story.
The book contains an Individual Casualty Questionnaire by crew-member Staff Sgt. Alexander Baronoski of New Hampshire, the one who sent the ring to Ruth. He stated “1st Lt. Cecil R. Bates stayed with the plane so his crew could get out … I believe I was the last one out of the plane before it exploded and he was flying the plane. It exploded too soon and he didn’t have time to get out. He stayed at the wheel so we could get out.”
What a statement! Baronoski concluded: “It’s about time the War Department decorated 1st Lt. Cecil R. Bates … for sacrificing his life so seven crew members could live. I believe nothing but the Congressional Medal of Honor would be proper decoration due this pilot.”
Promoted to captain, Bates, who flew “Nobody’s Baby,” served with the 15th Air Force, 55th Bomb Wing, 465th Bomb Group, 783rd Squadron, stationed at Pantanalla Air Base, Italy. With more than 35 confirmed missions, he was shot down Aug. 7, 1944, on a bombing mission to Blechhammer, Germany, and listed as “killed in action.”
According to the World War II website, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart. His name is memorialized at Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, Netherlands. His memory has now been shared by Ruth Stark Larkin, who never forgot her first love.
Ruth was a very private lady, a strong and independent 93 years young at the time, from the “old school,” the generation that takes care of themselves and doesn’t make a lot of fuss about it. When she told me this story, I asked her permission to write it for the newspaper, thinking she would be pleased to hear from old friends, and perhaps people who had known Cecil, but she said, “You can write it for the newspaper, but not until I’m gone.”
I was quite taken aback by her reply and asked her why. She said, “It would just be too difficult to read. It still makes me sad.”
After several strokes that took her speech, Ruth had to give up living at home. She moved into the Farrar Home in Malone and through speech therapy was able to communicate again, although with difficulty. She hated being away from home but understood it was for her safety.
Ruth died on Feb. 8 this year, after a short stay in the hospital. She was 98. At her request, she was buried with Cecil’s engagement ring, on a chain around her neck, close to her heart. She never had children to leave her keepsakes to, so the ring is in the right place.
I will always be grateful to her for sharing such a private and beautiful story of long ago. Through tears, her story was fully from the heart, and remembered with warmth and tenderness, like so many uncountable others from that era.
Cecil is just one of the thousands and thousands of American veterans we remember on Veteran’s Day, who served our country in multiple wars, and the thousands who gave their lives in that service, and continue to do so today. Shall we never forget the “Greatest Generation” and the remarkable men and women who have followed in their footsteps.
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- Pilot -- 1st Lt. Cecil R. Bates
- Co-pilot -- 2nd Lt. Weiser W. Wilson
- Navigator -- 2nd Lt. Charles J. Conlin Jr.
- Bombadier -- 2nd Lt. Woodrow W. Browning
- Flight engineer -- Tech. Sgt. Joe Taylor
- Radio operator -- Tech. Sgt. Carl H.
- Main Gunners -- Staff Sgt. Grover J. Weber Jr., Staff ; Sgt. Albert J. Yatkauskas; Staff Sgt. Alexander S. Baronoski and Staff Sgt. John J. Wilby.
783 BOMB SQUADRON
The 783rd Bomb Squadron was one of four B-24 squadrons of the 465th Bomb Group (H), which was activated on Aug. 1, 1943, at the Army Air Base, Alamogordo, N.M.
In October 1943, the 465th Bombardment Group (H) was ordered to the Army Air Base, McCook, Neb., to begin its three phases of combat training.
There were 17 combat crews assigned to the 783rd Bomb Squadron for eventual deployment to the Mediterranean Theatre.
The squadron departed in February 1944, eventually arriving at Pantanella, near Canosa, Italy, in April 1944, and became part of the 465th Bomb Group, 55th Wing of the 15th Air Force.
The squadron lost 28 planes during its combat operations. -- From the 783rd Bomb Squadron Association.