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Returned letters, Purple Heart open book on deceased WWII vet's life

Jan. 14, 2014 - 03:26PM   |  

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Nancy Cederman knew this much about her uncle’s life: Kendall Morrow was born in 1915 in Canada, the first of five children and the only son of Edwin and Mable Morrow. Some years later, he immigrated to the United States with his family, settling just across the Canadian border near Buffalo, N.Y. He became a citizen, found work as a mechanic and married.

In November 1942, as his new country reeled from the attack on Pearl Harbor less than a year before, Morrow enlisted in the Army Air Forces. The following June, while Morrow was away, his wife gave birth to a baby girl. He would never meet her.

Six months later, Staff Sgt. Kendall Morrow, a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress with the 351st Bomb Squadron, 100th Bomb Group, was killed on a mission over Germany.

Cederman was born two years after he died. Cederman’s mother, who was closest in age to Morrow, never spoke of him. No one did, except Cederman’s aunt, Averill Penseyres, the third of the Morrow children, and her stories were rooted in loss. Cederman lost contact with Morrow’s daughter years ago.

“My Aunt Averill grieved for Kendall her whole life. Her whole life. Every time she talked to us, she talked about him,” Cederman said. “All that stands out is her sorrow from losing him. All of her stories were about his death.”

When Penseyres died last year, the last remaining connection to Morrow was lost.

Or so it seemed.

A box and a story

Mark Hamilton found a box in a tenant storage locker in the basement of an apartment building near Rochester, N.Y., in 2001. He’d moved from Broomall, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology.

He knew right away the significance of what he found inside the cardboard box left like an afterthought in an otherwise empty storage space. Amid stacks of letters tied together with a faded pink ribbon and postmarked nearly six decades before, amid a tiny appointment book, a checkerboard and film negatives never processed was a small box with the words “Purple Heart” emblazoned in gold.

On the back of the Purple Heart was the name Kendall L. Morrow.

“He lived to bear his country’s arms,” began the Citation of Honor found in the box of Morrow’s personal effects. “He died to save its honor. He was a solider ... and he knew a soldier’s duty. His sacrifice may help to keep aglow the flaming torch that lights our lives ... that millions yet unborn will know the priceless joy of liberty. And we who pay him homage, and revere his memory, in solemn pride rededicate ourselves to a complete fulfillment of the task for which he so gallantly has placed his life upon the altar of man’s freedom.”

It was signed H.H. Arnold, Commanding General of the Army Air Forces.

Hamilton hoped someone would come back to the apartment to claim the box. When he moved out a year and a half later, no one had. Hamilton took the items with him, depositing them with his father for safekeeping.

Ken Hamilton was an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. Like his son, he believed Morrow’s family ought to have his personal effects, and it weighed on him.

But Ken Hamilton didn’t know how he would even begin a search for them. Perhaps some of the letters offered clues. But Ken Hamilton didn’t feel right about reading another man’s letters.

A decade passed. Finally, in 2012, Ken Hamilton turned to his daughter, Kristin Russo, a technologically savvy mom of two. Russo started searching the Internet. She sent messages to people who might be related to Kendall Morrow, but no one answered. She reached out to the families of survivors from the 100th Bomb Group. Most had never heard of him. One person said Morrow had no surviving relatives.

One night last August, Russo decided to try one more time. She’s not sure why. She can’t remember the words she typed into the Google search bar. What turned up was a news story about the New York Patriot Guard Riders veteran recovery program. The organization had helped return to the family of a World War II Army private his Purple Heart after it turned up in a donation box at a Goodwill near Buffalo.

Like Morrow, the Army private had been killed in action nearly 70 years before. If the Patriot Guard Riders had been able to return one lost Purple Heart so many years later, Russo thought, maybe they could do it again.

A search ends

When Linda Hastreiter is not working her full-time job for the federal government, or running her Buffalo neighborhood’s preservation society and museum, she helps find and inter the unclaimed remains of veterans for the Patriot Guard Riders recovery program.

“I wear many different hats,” Hastreiter said, but they are complementary.

As a fleet manager for the General Services Administration, she is in regular contact with each of the service branches.

When the preservation society opened the Iron Island Museum inside a church-turned-funeral home in 2000, the group discovered in the basement the cremated remains of two dozen people. Eight of them were veterans. In September 2010, their remains were the first the New York Patriot Guard Riders laid to rest.

The Iron Island Museum, so named for the railroad tracks that have surrounded Hastreiter’s beloved neighborhood since the late 19th century, has a military room dedicated to the sacrifices of local veterans — a lifelong interest for her mother, who worked for the Veterans Affairs Department.

When Hastreiter saw a Facebook post about the Purple Heart that turned up at a Goodwill last June, she thought she could help. With a little online research, she learned the Army private had been buried in Westover, Pa., some 200 miles away. Hastreiter found contact information for half a dozen people with the same last name still living in Westover and called them all. One called back. Last August, the Patriot Guard Riders made the trek to the private’s gravesite, where they returned the Purple Heart to his family.

The same month, Hastreiter got a message from the Patriot Guard Riders asking if she wanted to try to find the family of Staff Sgt. Kendall Morrow, whose personal effects had been found in an apartment building more than a decade before.

She did, of course.

“It was such an honor to be given a task such as this,” Hastreiter said. “I wasn’t stopping until I could find them.”

Kristin Russo had gleaned this much from the contents of the box: Kendall Morrow’s family had lived at one time in the Buffalo area. There was also a list of names that looked like an informal family tree.

Hastreiter began her search on Facebook, plugging in names. One in particular seemed promising. She reached out, then waited.

A few days later, she got a call from Morrow’s niece. Her name was Nancy Cederman.

Home, at last

Hastreiter arranged the ceremony in the military room of the museum, where service uniforms and U.S. flags decorate the walls. On Dec. 2, the Patriot Guard Riders arrived in their signature leather vests and baseball caps.

Hastreiter set up a small, flag-draped table, where she displayed the Purple Heart, the letters still tied with ribbons, the citation, the tiny appointment book, a few photographs.

In one photo, a boyish Morrow in suit and tie peers into the camera and smiles. In another, Morrow stands next to his bride on their wedding day.

Morrow’s widow eventually remarried and died more than a decade ago, Cederman said.

Nancy Cederman, a retired middle school science teacher and science fiction writer, quietly took it all in. She’d made the 25-mile drive with her husband from their home in Akron, N.Y., to accept Morrow’s things.

For so long, she’d known more about her uncle’s death than his life.

Now, through his letters, Cederman hopes to change that, to maybe even write a book about the short life of Staff Sgt. Kenneth Morrow so that others will know him, too.

“They[veterans] deserve to be heard. I think the young people in our country really need to see how much of a sacrifice some of these men made,” Cederman said. “The 100th Bomb Group he was in was known as the Bloody 100th because they lost so many planes. You just can’t kill the spirit of the man, the spirit of what they did.”

What Morrow and the nine other men on that B-17’s final flight did was heroic. Only one survived; waist gunner Staff Sgt. James Grosskopf parachuted into enemy territory, where he was taken prisoner, forced to march across Austria and part of Germany and liberated in the last month of the war. He died in 2007. The others perished somewhere over the North Sea.

A story on the 100th Bomb Group’s website, www.100thbg.com, recounts the fatal mission out of Thorpe Abbotts Air Base, England, on Dec. 11, 1943.

The B-17 called Sugarfoot had already made five successful trips over enemy territory. The sixth was a bombing mission targeting the submarine pens in Emden, Germany. U.S. fighter planes would provide an escort. Sugarfoot would serve only as a replacement should another aircraft have to abort the mission.

When an abort was called for the 390th Bomb Group, all aboard Sugarfoot agreed: They would volunteer to take its place, even though they belonged to another group.

The mission had called for flying away from Emden before cutting back toward it in an effort to fool the enemy. But strong headwinds led the bombers to turn back toward Emden early. When they arrived, the fighters weren’t yet there.

Seventeen Flying Fortresses went down that day. Sugarfoot was the 100th Bomb Group’s only loss.

Morrow’s plane took a direct hit from the enemy within five minutes. Cederman said Morrow continued to fire.

A second hit knocked out the Sugarfoot’s communications and sparked an oxygen fire. Grosskopf, the sole survivor, tried to get his comrade’s attention before bailing out. He jumped as the plane lost control, believing some of his comrades were behind him.

Morrow’s remains were never recovered.

But on Dec. 2, as she looked over his things, Cederman felt Morrow had at last come home.

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