HIS BROTHER'S KEEPER
Chronicle-Tribune (Marion, IN) - Sunday, May 26, 2002
Author: Mike Cline, Staff
BY SENIOR WRITER
The last time Phil Maggart saw his brother Charles was in October 1941.
He's been searching for his big brother since then.
By the end of 1942, Charles was missing in action in the rain-forested mountains of Papua New Guinea, shot down by Japanese warplanes as he was beginning a bombing mission with six other crew members.
For almost six decades, Phil has tried to find his brother, working through government agencies and private contacts. Even when he was an Air Force pilot, serving around the world - including a tour of duty flying search-and-rescue missions in Vietnam - he asked questions.
"Wherever I was, I asked for information," Phil says, flipping through some of the files he has meticulously compiled over the years. Before he retired as a lieutenant colonel, Phil had served in New York, Florida, Oklahoma, Nevada, Texas, Libya and Japan as well as Vietnam. "If I met someone who was old enough, or if I thought they might know something, I asked."
Although he hasn't found his brother, Phil's found enough information to know, in his heart, at least, where his brother is this Memorial Day weekend.
"It's closed as far as I'm concerned," he says, firmly but sadly. "I'm satisfied. I know it's his plane they found."
`The Happy Legend'
The plane they found was The Happy Legend, a B-25 bomber. It wasn't Charles' regular plane, but it was the plane he was flying that day.
Charles had been with the 38th Bomb Group, a part of the Army's 5th Air Force, for about six months.
"They flew every day," Phil says. "They were in the air all the time. It wasn't unusual to have three missions a day.
"He usually flew a plane called Ole Cappy. But they had so many planes shot down and crews shot up they would just put units together as best they could."
Ole Cappy was not part of the operation Dec. 5, 1942, when a flight of bombers took off on a run to bomb Lae, along the northeastern coast of the island, on the other side of the Owen Stanley Mountains.
As the flight took off, Charles was parked on the runway, at the controls of The Happy Legend, one of the standby B-25s for the mission.
"They were sending two flights of four planes each on the run," Phil says. "They always had a standby plane if one of the bombers had mechanical trouble. My brother was in the standby plane."
One of the pilots in the flight, Garrett Middlebrook, had engine problems. Middlebrook, an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote a book about his war service, Combat at 20 Feet.
"I took off (for Lae) in No. 4 position," Middlebrook wrote, "but I knew I had serious engine problems even before I became airborne. ... I was trailing a heavy stream of smoke.
"I did not even attempt to join the formation. ... As I was on my base leg for landing, (The Happy Legend) took off to fill my place in the formation. ... He was shot down on the mission."
The Happy Legend was Middlebrook's regular bomber.
`His deep regret'
Charles' wife, Yolanda, was visiting the Maggarts in January 1943 when a Western Union messenger knocked on the door of their North Branson Street home.
"The messenger just handed her the telegram and didn't say a word to her," Phil says. "She thought it was a telegram from Charlie with details of when he would be coming home. He was scheduled to rotate out on Jan. 6, 1943, so she thought it would be from him, telling her when to pick him up. She was very bitter about the way they handled it."
The telegram was about Charles, all right, but it was from the War Department:
"The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, southwest pacific area, has reported your husband, Lt. Charles L. Maggart, Air Corps, missing in action. Additional information will be sent you when received."
Charles' plane did not make it over the mountains.
The B-25s would carry six to eight 500-pound bombs, along with a crew of seven and a full load of fuel. "They struggled to get over the mountains with that load," Phil says. "They would try to climb to about 15,000 feet.
"As Charles tried to catch up to the formation, he entered some clouds. He never came out of them. The Japanese liked to hang around and try to shoot them down when they were struggling for altitude."
The crash site, according to the Army's Central Information Laboratory in Hawaii, is about 6,200 feet up, near Kokoda Pass and Little Myola Lake. When the plane hit, the fuel and most of the bombs exploded, blasting a crater 59 feet across and almost 10 feet deep.
Looking for adventure
Charles was in the Army Air Force because he loved flying.
"He always had motorcycles and fast cars," says Phil, who was 11 years younger than Charles. "He wasn't rowdy he just liked them. I remember there was an old biplane from around World War I over in Kokomo, and he tried to convince our father to buy it. But he just said, `No, I won't do that.'"
Charles found a way to fly regularly, though, when he met Lewis Jackson.
"He started flying with Jackson," Phil says. "Jackson had a plane that he kept out on a field where the parking lot for Thomson multimedia is today."
Jackson paid his way through Marion College - now Indiana Wesleyan University - with money he earned on barnstorming tours and by giving flying lessons. Later, he helped found and train the Tuskegee Airmen unit, becoming one of the Army's first African-American pilots. IWU's new library, scheduled to open late this summer, will bear his name.
Although flying and speed were passions, Charles also excelled at athletics and academics.
"He played football and basketball, and he was at or near the top of his class at Marion High School," Phil says. "When he graduated (Class of 1938), he had scholarship offers from Indiana and the University of New Mexico. He chose New Mexico.
"After a couple of years, he decided to join the Army. He joined because he wanted to fly and because jobs were scarce then. He was looking for adventure and a way to find good work.
"He enlisted in April of '41. I remember taking him down to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. The whole family went. He met some other fellows there who were going to basic and flight training the same place he was."
They received flight training at Parks Air College in St. Louis and Randolph Field, Texas. From Randolph Field, Charles was sent to Ellington Field, Texas, for advanced flight training. The Ellington Field training earned Charles, until then a sergeant major of cadets, pilot's wings and lieutenant's bars.
Before he went to Ellington Field, however, Charles visited Marion on furlough.
Charles' kid brother, then about 10, was impressed to see Charles in uniform, a U.S. Army officer-in-waiting.
"I don't remember exactly what we did while he was here," Phil says. "I do remember thinking how good he looked in uniform. He was always one of my heroes. He spent time with his friends. We just enjoyed having him around again."
When they said their good-byes, none of them realized it would be forever.
Peace of mind
In 1943, a team of Australians reached the crash site, but there were Japanese units in the area, so little was done, Phil says.
The Central Information Laboratory visited the site in 1995 and in 2001, Phil recently learned. Both times, though, work had to be suspended.
"Pieces of the wreckage are unstable and in a precarious position, and there is at least one live 500-pound bomb still at the site," he says. "The crater is also full of water, and they aren't able to pump it out."
As soon as the water is pumped out, the crater refills.
But the visits were not entirely unsuccessful.
A piece of the tail is intact, and it still bears the plane's identification number. In addition to the unexploded bomb, searchers discovered pieces of the plane, including a 50-caliber machine gun, ammunition cans, a bombsight and other equipment. They also found human remains and personal effects.
Through the personal effects, they have identified two crew members - men who were aboard The Happy Legend that day. Phil has offered blood samples if the laboratory decides on DNA testing of the human remains.
The mail delivery of May 18 brought Phil two reports he was unaware of. They are from the Central Information Laboratory, and they are about the 1995 and 2001 excavations at The Happy Legend's crash site.
After reading them, Phil is convinced The Happy Legend crashed near Little Myola Lake. "Finally, we can bring this to closure."
Charles is remembered not only through his kid brother's efforts, but also through at least three monuments.
oA memorial headstone stands in Section A of Estates of Serenity cemetery. Carved into the marker, above the name "Maggart":
IN LOVING MEMORY OF LIEUT. CHARLES L.
GAVE HIS LIFE IN COMBAT
MEMBER OF 5TH AIR FORCE
Buried there are Charles and Phil's parents, Myrtle and Orville Maggart.
oCharles' name is listed on the World War II memorial on the Grant County Courthouse Square.
oHe is also listed among the names of 35,000 MIAs honored in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.
On this Memorial Day, as the nation honors those whose invincible determination was stopped only by death, Phil Maggart, himself a blooded veteran of battle, has peace of mind to wrap around the memories of his big brother.