Thomasville pilot gave his life to save five others
The telegram arrived April 20, 1945.
World War II was winding down overseas, but a season of grief was just beginning in Thomasville, the hometown of 2nd Lt. Raymond Wilson Reid, a 21-year-old bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Coy Reid, the young airman’s father, received the telegram while at work in the Duke Power offices downtown. He likely didn’t even have to read the succinctly worded message to know what it said. When your son is at war, it’s him you pray to hear from — not Western Union.
The words came at him in bits and pieces, piercing his heart like wayward shrapnel from an exploding mortar.
“THE SECRETARY OF WAR...”
“REID RAYMOND W...”
“KILLED IN ACTION...”
“GERMANY 16 APR 45...”
For the moment, that was all Coy Reid needed to know, and probably all he could’ve withstood. His firstborn child — the son whose first name, Raymond, was Coy’s middle name — had died four days earlier.
He didn’t know how his son had died. Had he been shot down by the enemy? Was it friendly fire? Had Raymond suffered, God forbid, or had he died instantly?
All the heavyhearted father knew was that his son had been killed in action, and now he had the unenviable task of going home and breaking the news to Helen, the boy’s mother. Then, together, they would tell Raymond’s two younger sisters, 16-year-old Helen Anne and 8-year-old Mary.
At the time, there wasn’t much to tell — only that Raymond had been “killed in action,” as the telegram had so tersely stated. In the coming weeks, though, they would learn the story of Raymond’s death, a gritty, inspiring tale straight out of an old war movie.
The young pilot may have died, but because of the courageous heroism of 2nd Lt. Raymond Wilson Reid, the families of his five crew members would not be hearing from Western Union.
* * * *
Anne Rapp, who went by Helen Anne as a child, adored her big brother.
“I always wanted to do what he did,” the 85-year-old Colfax woman recalls with a chuckle. “He’d climb the wild cherry tree and I couldn’t do it, but I fell off the garage one time trying.”
She remembers Raymond as a bright student at Thomasville High School, where he graduated in 1941. He was rather quiet. Responsible and respectful. Patriotic.
“And he always wanted to fly,” Rapp says.
When Raymond assembled a model plane from a kit, he built his own instrument panel, and even a set of miniature earphones, to put in the cockpit. Then he suspended the plane from a clothesline and photographed it to make it look as if it was airborne.
He studied pictures of various types of aircraft and even wrote papers for his English class about aviation. He studied aeronautical engineering in college, and he spent a summer working at the Vega Aircraft Corp. in California.
So no one was surprised when Raymond enlisted in the Army Air Corps in November 1942. Despite the ongoing war, he showed no fear about his mission.
“Not ever,” Rapp says. “I’m sure Mother and Daddy were scared to death, because they knew what he would be doing, but he wasn’t fearful.”
Rapp feared for her brother, too. The day he left for training, she took the pillow off of his bed and slept with it every night. She wrote him letters and eagerly awaited his replies.
Flying B-26 Marauders with the Ninth Air Force, Raymond quickly became a skilled pilot, acing any tests his superiors put in front of him and excelling in the cockpit. He flew one successful mission after another, most of them tactical bombing runs aimed at wiping out targets such as railways, bridges and ammunition dumps.
One such mission in February 1945 earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross “for extraordinary achievement against the enemy in aerial flight.” The target was a railway bridge at Engers, Germany. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire that knocked out his left engine, Raymond managed to keep his plane level and drop his bombs on the target, with excellent results, before safely returning to his base.
Two months later, Raymond would come under heavy fire again. This time, though, the outcome would not be so favorable — not for him, at least.
This, his 61st mission, would be his last.
* * * *
Lt. Raymond W. Reid died on April 16, 1945, during his second bombing mission that day.
The Western Union telegram notifying the young man’s family would arrive in Thomasville four days later. In time, the telegram would become a family keepsake — a grim reminder of what the war had cost the Reid family — but at the time, its blunt message that Raymond had been “killed in action” was woefully inadequate.
“Mother was trying desperately to find out what had happened,” Rapp says, recalling that her mother had contacted the War Department seeking details of her son’s death. When that proved fruitless, she requested the names and addresses of his crew members, in hopes that they could shed some light on what had happened.
Boy, did they. One letter, in particular — from Raymond’s co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Kenneth J. Stear — detailed exactly what happened.
It seems that Raymond’s plane was experiencing mechanical trouble — the right engine kept cutting out — so Raymond left the formation and turned the plane back toward his unit’s base in France. Anti-aircraft fire riddled the plane, further compromising Raymond’s ability to maintain altitude.
“The only thing left was to try to make Swiss territory,” Stear wrote in a three-page letter dated July 6, 1945. “When we did make it we were very low and since the controls were shot out we all had to jump.”
As he had done two months earlier when he earned his Distinguished Flying Cross, Raymond kept the plane level as his buddies bailed out one by one.
“Ray was the last one out of the plane,” Stear continued, “and by the time he did go the plane was too close to the ground for his parachute to open. He evidently had stayed with the plane long enough to ensure the rest of us as much safety in jumping as possible.”
Two crew members landed in Germany, one of whom made his way to Switzerland, and another who was captured but eventually was released. The other three crew members landed safely in Swiss territory.
“Mrs. Reid,” Stear concluded, “you can see by this how much we, the crew, owe to your son. Without a doubt, if it hadn’t been for his quick thinking and superior ability as a pilot we all would have been killed.”
Another crew member, Sgt. Robert L. Mercado, echoed that sentiment.
“If it hadn’t been for his coolness and his ability,” he wrote, “I don’t believe any of us would have gotten back.”
Nearly 70 years later, Raymond’s nephew — David Raymond Rapp, of Greensboro — treasures those letters from his uncle’s surviving crew members, because they document the sacrifice Raymond made for his country.
“I heard the stories growing up,” he says. “He always sounded like a hero to me, and the letters prove it.”
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