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Major Duward F. Sumner

A Soldier Remembered

By Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light

He liked night flying best. And he excelled at flying individual sorties over the vast and unforgiving South Pacific to seek out the enemy below.  This is about one such night.  

The lone B-24 Liberator bomber of the 13th Air Force cruised along in the darkness of the ocean night. The drone of the plane's four 1200 horsepower engines provided the only sound. All 10 crewmen strained to scan the surface of the Bismarck Sea below.  Through scattered low clouds they could see moonlight reflecting on the glimmering waters.  

Under orders to seek out and harass enemy shipping, they found their solitary patrol mission to be routine, tiring and uneventful up until now, on this January night in 1944. They cruised over the open sea northwest of New Hanover Island. The war against Japan had turned in their favor, but the outcome was still very much in doubt.  

After many hours of flying that night and after two years of war, the crew of the "Night Snooper" found itself tired--tired from hours of straining to spot distant enemy vessels on this mission, and tired from two years of fighting. But the war went on, and the mission was not over.  

The plane's intercom crackled to life. The navigator reported that he "saw something." The pilot, a young lieutenant, swung the bomber into a wide circle. He and his co-pilot saw two groups of enemy vessels in the distance.  In completing their circle they sighted a third group.  

The pilot began maneuvering back toward the first convoy they spotted. He picked out a medium-sized ship and began his bomb run. The radio operator flashed a radio message to the plane's base giving the position, size and course of the enemy convoy and the terse statement: "Am attacking!"  

The Japanese warship caught on and began such violent evasive action that the bombardier was unable to synchronize his bomb release. With so many big enemy ships within reach, the pilot did not wish to waste any bombs, so he broke off his bomb run and began looking for another target. He swung back around and picked out a big one toward the rear of the convoy.  

This time the B-24 was met with a veritable hailstorm of anti-aircraft fire, beginning at a distance of several miles. But this time the pilot and his crew were determined to carry through and they flew headlong into the seemingly impossible wall of white-hot tracers coming toward them. Being punished unmercifully, the plane shook and buffeted from the exploding shells and the projectiles tearing through the plane. The crewmen braced themselves with clenched fists and gritted teeth against what must have seemed like a near certainty of death, until finally the bombardier released his bombs at an altitude of just 1100 feet. Just then something jolted the plane, and for an instant it seemed the entire craft would disintegrate. The pilot leveled off and sped away from the convoy with the Japanese below still firing. Finally they reached comparative safety and with great relief found that no one was hurt. They looked back and saw a fire blazing furiously from the Japanese warship.  

During this second attack the bomber received over 30 hits and the big blast tore a hole of about eight inches in diameter in the fuselage just back of the trailing edge of the left wing. They guessed a five-inch shell caused it. The hydraulic system and one engine had been disabled. However, the pilot managed to reach his base and make a safe landing without control of the flaps or brakes.  

This discovery of a 55-ship Japanese convoy opened a three-day running battle in the seas north of New Ireland that completely destroyed the enemy convoy.  This daring single-handed night attack was just another day in the war of the young Army Air Corps pilot, Lieutenant Duward F. Sumner of Dallas and Waxahachie.  

The exploit was only one in a long series for Lt. Sumner and his crew. On Oct. 1, 1943, they sank a Japanese destroyer off the northeast coast of Bougainville.  On Nov. 1, 1943, they made six bomb runs on a 12-ship task force at the mouth of St. George's Channel, reported the position to the navy and this resulted in the sinking of five destroyers and a cruiser. On New Year's Eve in 1943, they bombed and sank a submarine off the southeast coast of New Britain. In January 1944, they bombed and sank a cruiser and an ammunition cargo vessel northwest of RaBaul. With such men, the Second World War was won.  

Fifty-eight years later, a backhoe operator worked carefully, taking small scoops of soil from the grave of Major Duward Sumner in the Hillcrest Cemetery just west of Waxahachie. Under the watchful eyes of funeral director Wayne Boze, the crew worked quietly to uncover the remains of Sumner from his grave of 56 years.  

There was no honor guard, no military honors, no one from Ellis County present who remembered the airman who had done so much for his country. A shame really, for Duward Sumner was perhaps one of the most heroic and as daring a patriot as has ever been held by the earth of an Ellis County cemetery.  

He was born in Canton, Texas and attended high school in Cooper, Texas. A career military man, Duward worked his way up through the ranks in the field artillery. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was a sergeant stationed at Camp Bowie, Texas, and was married to his second wife, Marjorie Dorsey of Waxahachie. Although Sgt. Sumner never really lived in Waxahachie, he would come to visit his in-laws, Ben and Annie Dorsey of 210 McMillan Street, whenever he got leave.  Duward was also a member of the First Baptist Church, across the street from his wife's parent's home.  

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Duward's military career took a drastic change. Appointed an aviation cadet, he trained for the next year in different types of aircraft in San Antonio, Uvalde, San Angelo, Lubbock and Forth Worth. He was sent to the South Pacific as a Lieutenant in May 1943 and from there his combat record reads like that of an Audie Murphy of the Army Air Corps.  

He flew combat missions out of Midway, Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Bougainville, Yap, Tulagi, Rekata Bay, Woleai Island, Tarawa, Truk, the Palu Islands, the Solomons, the Gilberts, Saipan and Tinian. During his war tour, Duward twice won promotion and became the group operations officer. He participated in the first skip-bombing attack on Japanese warships in the Coral Sea, got shot down twice during the war, and once spent several days on an open raft off the Solomon Islands until rescued by a patrol plane.  

After 112 missions and 857 combat hours, Lt. Sumner wore four rows of ribbons, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Silver Star, the Soldiers' Medal, the Air Medal with 10 Oak Leaf clusters, the Pacific Theater Ribbon with 5 stars, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Philippine Campaign ribbon, and the Purple Heart.   

On the Admiralty Islands, Duward witnessed one of our bombers as it crashed in flames making an emergency landing. For running into the burning wreckage and carrying five wounded crewmen to safety and continuing to search for other survivors he received the Soldiers' Medal. During his Pacific war, Sumner's plane sank one Japanese cruiser, two destroyers, five ammunition cargo ships, five transports, one submarine and scored five direct hits on an aircraft carrier.  

In September 1944, the Army decided Duward was too valuable to fly any more combat missions and shipped him stateside to be flight commander at the B-24 School in Casper, Wyoming. From there Sumner eventually moved to Andrews Field outside Washington, DC. He served the remainder of the war at Andrews as the Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Officer and was the most decorated soldier on the base.  

His war was over. As he put it, "I have a good job now, but God I'd like to be back there [with the 13th Air Force]." He adjusted to normalcy and family life. When asked in a June 1945 interview what he was most proud of, he answered, being the father of Selma Sue, 8, and Duward Jr., 4. A third child, Sharon, was on the way.  

If ever a soldier deserved to settle down to a good life and to the admiration of a grateful nation, it was Duward Sumner. He was promoted for the final time to the rank of Major. Then, in an "irony of ironies," as Duward Jr. stated in a recent phone interview, the man that had faced down death so many times in a world war met his death in an accident, a mere accident.  

On April 17, 1946, shortly before noon, while on a routine test flight of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, Major Sumner, 31, was killed when his plane crashed just four minutes after take-off. Along with three other WW II combat veterans, he died in a wheat field in Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside Washington, DC. A farmer who witnessed the crash said, "I saw the tail section break away from the plane and then watched it circle in a sort of helpless fashion. I thought they would have time to get out but the plane exploded on the way down. I thought the plane was going to land by me so I jumped off my tractor and took cover in the ditch. The plane came down in a flat spin and crashed upside down." A local Catholic priest rushed to the scene and administered the last rights.  

Sumner's widow, Marjorie, with 2-month-old Sharon and Duward Jr., lived in the Army quarters at Andrews Field. No doubt overcome by loss and grief, Marjorie brought her family and the body of her husband back home to Waxahachie. Back home to McMillan Street. The remains of Major Sumner arrived back in Waxahachie by train accompanied by his friend Major Charles Duncan from Andrews Field. Dr. Joseph Boone conducted the services at the First Baptist Church. Sumner was laid to rest in the Hillcrest Burial Park in Waxahachie, where lay 14 other men that died for their country in World War II.  

The small grave marker was modest. Far too modest a memorial for such a man. It had a small porcelain picture of the Major and no mention of his war record, only the words, "Our loved one." Eventually his widow remarried, and the children grew up. The family moved on. Years passed. Decades passed. Our town forgot.  

In 2001, the three children lived scattered across the country. Selma Sue Stinson, the oldest, was moving to Arizona. Duward Sumner Jr. lived in Washington, DC. Sharon Willey lived in Denver. Duward Jr. and Sharon had lost contact with Selma Sue over time and hadn't spoken to her in many years. One by one they heard news from relatives about the new Veterans Memorial that had been built. Selma Sue and Duward Jr. traveled to Waxahachie to see it and to visit the grave of their father. They made the decision to move Duward to the DFW National Cemetery and to sell off the remaining unused spaces in the family plot. The arrangements were made.  

The backhoe operator is now finished. The grave is now open. Major Sumner's remains are moved into a new casket for transport to Dallas. He was re-buried in the National Cemetery on June 28, 2002, in the presence of his daughter, Selma Sue, her mother and aunt. There was no honor guard, no military honors. The government refused any honors for the second burial.  

Major Sumner rested here for 56 years. His remains are now gone from Ellis County, but his memory should live on. The original grave marker will be moved to just inside the Hillcrest Cemetery main gate on the left. It will be made part of a cenotaph memorial for Duward. You should pay a visit to the marker and remember a soldier who did so much for our country.  

Perhaps his best epitaph comes from the words of a letter written to his widow by his commanding officer during the war, "He was one of the best combat men we had and one of the finest all-round officers. He was admired by everyone, and very well liked. He never got so tired that he failed to be pleasant and conscientious, and when the time came for him to come home, he made it known he was willing to stay longer if he were needed. I realize there is very little I can say to comfort you in the grief you must feel, but I do want you to know how fine other people thought he was."  

Duward Sumner was a hero. With such men the Second World War was won. We should not forget him.

"A Soldier Remembered" by Perry Giles, Guest Columnist, Waxahachie Daily Light: The above article appeared on front page of the Sunday, July 21, 2002 issue of the Waxahachie Daily Light. The picture is courtesy of Perry Giles, Giles Monument Company, Waxahachie, Texas.

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