The following is a guest blog post by Nancy Groce, PhD, Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center.
Edwin (“Eddy”) Groce was my uncle and my father’s only sibling, but we never met. Years before I was born, twenty-year old Eddy and nine of his shipmates died in the fiery crash of his B-24J Liberator bomber on December 30, 1944, while training at Gowen Air Field in Boise, Idaho, as they prepared to be sent into combat. Growing up, no one spoke about Eddy—it was too painful—so after my father’s death in 2017, I was surprised to discover a cache of more than 130 letters Eddy had written to his family in New York City. As I prepared the letters to donate them to the Veterans History Project (VHP), I discovered something else unexpected: A remarkable act of kindness from a lovely woman in rural Idaho to a New York immigrant family; an act that still reverberates after more than 75 years.
Eddy’s death ended a 22-month long journey in the midst of World War II. Eddy was drafted from New York City as a raw 18-year old recruit and then transferred 10 times from one Army Air Force base to another, learning new skills, growing up, and rising to the rank of Second Lieutenant along the way. During his service, he received extensive training: first as an aerial gunner, then as an aircraft mechanic, and for a short time as a potential pilot, before getting specialized training as a navigator for large bombers. (He referred to himself as a “Bombagator.”) He died just after his first and only home leave, which brought him back to Manhattan just before he was about to be shipped overseas.
While in the service, Eddy became an increasingly engaging letter writer. Throughout the one-sided correspondence that survives, Eddy’s letters confirmed the few family stories I had heard about him being a nice, sweet-tempered, optimistic young man with a good sense of humor. Almost all of the letters were addressed to his parents Albert and Leonora Groce, with the occasional letter to his brother Raymond Groce. No letters sent to Eddy have been found.
His letters sometimes reflect how homesick he was, for both his family and his city. For example, in a letter of May 10, 1944, while stationed in Santa Ana, California, he wrote that when he got leave, “What I do is rush into town [Los Angeles] and stand on the busiest street and let people shove me around. That way I can visualize what New York is like. It’s too bad they don’t have subways.” In the course of the correspondence, Eddy grows up. He talks less about the lack and/or poor quality of the food and more about what he plans to do after the war, how he is increasingly intrigued by navigation and his pride in being a navigator (“the brains of the whole outfit”). In his letter of July 2, 1944, he philosophically writes, “The whole thing with the army is to keep your sense of humor.”
The Edwin Groce Collection also includes the official telegraph announcing his death (apparently following an initial phone call), a pro forma letter from his Commandant to his parents, and several telegraphs and letters regarding shipping his body back to New York and other funeral arrangements.
The collection should have ended there, but it doesn’t. On March 21, 1945, three months after the crash, a Mrs. Rose M. Bushnell of Nampa, Idaho, who lived near the crash site in Meridian, wrote to “Albert L. Groce, Relation of Late Edwin D. Groce, New York City.” Despite the lack of any street address, the U.S. Post Office amazingly delivered the letter to Eddy’s father’s mid-town Manhattan office. Sadly, only the empty envelope remains in the collection—(the initial letter is missing)—but presumably, Mrs. Bushnell was writing to offer condolences. Eddy’s brother Raymond apparently responded—(his letter is also missing)– which elicited a gracious note from Mrs. Bushnell that included an article clipped from The Idaho Daily Statesman describing the evening crash in which Eddy and his shipmates died. (“O.J. Lutz, a farmer residing about two miles northwest of the scene, reported he was in his barn milking when he heard the plane. ‘I could tell by the sound of the motors that it was in trouble,’ he said. Then, Lutz said, he heard the explosion and the lights in his barn went out.”)
In her response to Raymond’s letter, Mrs. Bushnell first expresses surprise that you “received my letter with such an address.” Then she poignantly writes that she has two sons in the service, one of whom had just been wounded at Iwo Jima. “If either should be killed, I would want to know the circumstances. I think most parents and kin would want to know how their loved ones died.” She closes her short note by requesting “If you receive this will you please let me know. I keep a record of all those that I can & perhaps you will tell me what relation you are to him and if his parents are living.” This indicates that she probably wrote not only to Eddy’s family, but to the families of all the others who died in that mid-winter crash.
Discovering this exchange more than 75 years after the fact, I was deeply touched by Rose Bushnell’s kindness. Reaching out to her family, who still live in in the Napa area, her grandson Robert Bushnell wrote me that he had never heard anything about the crash or Rose’s writing to Gold Star families, but had always admired his grandmother for her strength and common sense. As Eddy’s niece, her extraordinary thoughtfulness in writing to an urban immigrant family on the other side of the country remains a touching act of compassion from one American to another. As much as Eddy’s service, her humanity deserve to be preserved and celebrated as part of the Veterans History Project.