A Page in tribute to
Lt. Tho. J. Sutters, USAF.
KIA over Augsburg, GE, in 1944
A Debt To Honor
By Capt. J.S. Blonsick
As I sit on
my patio listening to my children splashing in their inflatable pool, watching
the American flag lethargically search the summer like breeze, words my father
spoke to me when I was my oldest daughter’s age come back to linger. The words
were from an older time, from a time when men believed in the struggle for which
they fought and trusted their comrades in that struggle. My father’s words
came from both his experience in combat and from a man my father had hero
worshipped as a boy. I never met the man but I know him well. I have items he
touched during his brief sojourn on earth, I have talked with his comrades, I
have a copy of the singed military records almost lost to fire, I have listened
to his story and of his death. It is as if I knew the man from afar, someone you
almost know through others. Tried to emulate his service and understand
sacrifice as much as I have those my own father gave.
Thomas Joseph, 0-804535, Lt,
390th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, USAF,
DOB: 26 Feb 1918,
Killed in Action: 13 April 1944.
That pretty much sums it up. High school graduate, accountant for the American Weekly in New York City, worked there from 1936 through 1941, making $130 per month. As events unfolded an ocean away that would ultimately take his life, Tommy performed cost accounting of production of printing material. As Nazi’s burned books, Tommy printed them. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Infantry as a Sargent. Marksman with .45 caliber automatic pistol. In consideration, given his infantry unit would later lead the invasion of France at Normandy, his choice of deaths at least was his own making.
volunteered for the United States Army Air Force in March 1943. His flight
training records take him from Aviation Cadet in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, then
Seymour, Indiana, then Lockbourne Army Air base in Columbus, Ohio learning the
basic piloting skills to handle the Boeing “Flying Fortress” with its 10 man
crew, four engines and 6,000 pound bomb load. He was commissioned as a 2nd
Lieutenant and designated an Army Air Force pilot in late June 1943 with silver
wings. Further training in Ephrata and Walla Walla, Washington. He and his crew
trained and flew together from the beginning. They knew one another better than
most Army units did in the more relaxed military environs of aviation. With 533
flight hours, he reported to the 8th Air Force in the European Theater of
Operations. The entries in his log book are typed in with a challenge to present
a military appearance of the scattered numbers. The only personal and
non-military touches are the signature of the reviewing officer and Tom’s
birth year. The rest is an accountant’s summaries of a man’s preparation for
In November 1943, he and his crew began flying combat missions over Europe. The typed numbers in his service record are sterile: dates, aircraft type, landings – even on his last mission – one, first pilot time. An asterisk beside the date the only annotation of combat. A clean, efficient presentation of hell. Bremen, Ludwigshaven, Mannheim, Paris, Frankfurt, Wilhemshaven, Crequy, Rostov, Brauschweig, Rostock, Grand Parc, Berlin, Berlin, Berlin, Berlin, Chateaudun, Cazaux. Poznan, Maldegen and, finally Augsburg.
There are a few citations signed by General Doolittle for “courage, coolness and skill” for Air Medals, two alive, one posthumous. A Record of Award of Decoration for his posthumous Purple Heart with shipping instructions to “next of kin.” These service records are how the world would otherwise know Tommy Sutters. I have been lucky to know the man better through the people whose lives he touched. His surviving crew members have provided photographs and personal remembrances. His ball turret gunner Joe Collector and co-pilot Paul Cooper provided photos of Tommy and even of his grave in England. In one photo, the eyes of a twenty-five year-old man show early aging and hardness. His crush hat tilted just the right angle of pilot cockiness, his Eisenhower field jacket bare and utilitarian, standing in front of a front gun turret – his eyes underscored by lines of fatigue and combat.
The photos of his crew are grainy and the faces do not match the young ages of their owners. There is no frivolity or open-eyed optimism, or even the unfocused gaze of a life ahead. Tommy’s shadow projects onto the blade of a propeller in one photo, like a dark crewmember unseen.
There is a photo of aircraft number 23312 crash landed in an English field on New Year’s Eve 1943 due to battle damage. The log reads 6:35 minutes. The target: German held airfields in Paris. Prop tips bent back, the aircraft rests on its undercarriage and crushed ball turret, visible anti-aircraft artillery damage to its tail, waist guns pointed toward the sky.
There is a newspaper clipping in the local Astoria, NY, newspaper, charming in its simplicity and openness – would we publish the spouse’s address in today’s newspaper while her husband was away at war?
Flying Fortress “Skippy” was ablaze and the pilot, Lieut. Thomas J. Sutters,
25, of Astoria, ordered the crew to bail out. They jumped and still the plane
flew on, smoke pouring in its wake. Lieut. Sutters struggled to keep the ship
aloft, it was revealed today, until it was over the Channel so it could crash
without endangering the lives of British villagers. However, the entire ship was
in flames and Sutters was forced to parachute to safety.
an accountant, Sutters was on his eighth bombing mission when his plane crashed.
His wife, Lorrane, lives at 29-24 21st Av., Astoria.”
I have a small piece of that parachute. Tommy sent it to my father as a momento of the 20 February 1944 mission to Rostov, Poland. My father also relates two personal stories of “Skippy’s” crewmembers’ escape from the burning B-17. One crewmember landed unconscious on the railroad tracks, pulled to safety by a British civilian moments before the train passed. Another was “captured” by a pitchfork wielding farmer who feared the fallen airman was German not American.
his silver wings. As a young boy, my father would show them to me and I would
wonder at their weight and meaning. They seemed so solid and sturdy as if
nothing could injure them or cause them harm. Tarnished silver wings. Tommy must
have been proud to have earned them when they were shiny and air combat seemed a
dark storm on a distant horizon.
On 13 April
1944, his 29th combat mission, Lt. Thomas J. Sutters and his crew took off from
Parham, England for a bombing mission over Augsburg, Germany. The target: a
Messerschmitt manufacturing plant. Over the target, a burst from an
anti-aircraft gun hit the aircraft. Tommy’s upper leg was shredded by jagged
shrapnel. The crew chief climbed down from his upper turret and was applying a
tourniquet to Tommy’s mangled leg when another blast struck the ship. The crew
chief’s foot was blown off. Tommy was disemboweled and bled to death on the
flight back to England. He is buried in Cambridge Military Cemetery.
As a boy, tucked in my bed one night, my father spoke down the hall. Not a man given to religion, he said, “Son, tonight remember those who gave their lives for your freedom. Say a prayer for those who died in service.” I did and always have made a silent prayer for Tommy and the others who braved deadly skies or bloody beaches, lands and decks. I silently thanked my father for his naval service in Korea. He and Tommy inspired me to earn my own wings – although of gold rather than silver – and to serve my country and their memories of sacrifice. I thank them both, this time aloud.
The color photos of the graveyard seem more alive than the photos of Tommy and his crew. The blaze of green grass and red and pink roses exaggerate the stark grave markers in their martial sea of white. Thousands, most marble crosses, some marble stars of David, stand at attention in rank and column as if awaiting dismissal from formation. Each bearing a name, the first one reads: Thomas J. Sutters, LT, 570th Bomb Sq, 390 Bomb Gp, New York, Apr 13, 1944.