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Patriotic family honors downed Naval aviator lost at sea in 1943

Editor’s note: Four or five days a week, I walk in Greenwood Cemetery. As a result, I am very familiar with the place. I notice new graves and headstones. I was puzzled when I found new markers in the newest section of the cemetery for a Navy pilot killed in action in 1943. I reached out to local historian Tim Turner who was equally puzzled by the grave of Earnest Duke Williams. I wanted to learn his story. It is one of sacrifice and patriotism that is timely as we prepare to celebrate Veterans Day Friday. By Walter Geiger Suzanne Forster has a vivid memory of a visit to Arlington National Cemetery with her grandmother, Pauline Witherspoon Williams. Pauline gazed out at row upon row of white tombstones and said, ‘I will never see my son’s gravestone.’ Her son was Earnest Duke Williams. This was a family of patriots. Pauline’s husband, Earnest Wright Williams, served in World War I. Suzanne’s parents, Bill and Gaie Pittman, are buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Bill was a 1st Lieutenant in the Army and served in China in the Pacific Theatre in World War II. The Pacific seemed to be the extended family’s wartime destination. Bill’s brother, 1st. Lt. John Cobb Pittman, was a U.S. Marine and a member of Carlson’s Raiders. He fought on Okinawa and watched from a distance on Iwo Jima as the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi. John stormed Okinawa and was hit by four bullets. One grazed his skull inside his helmet which the family still has. He led ashore 45 men, all of whom were killed or wounded. He got 26 replacements, 19 of which were hit. John received two Purple Hearts and there are stories of he and a fellow soldier surviving in a cave with only a flame thrower for protection. They would slip out at night to take provisions off dead soldiers. John survived the war and went on to a successful career. He died in 2015 at the age of 92. Bill Pittman and Gaie’s brother, Duke, were fraternity brothers at Auburn. Duke grew up in Anniston. He was an Eagle Scout and a daredevil. ‘Duke always loved speed. He had that need for speed,’ Suzanne remembered. In a tribute, Duke’s childhood friend Tag Livingston, a retired Naval aviator himself who served in the Pacific, remembered the two built hundreds of airplanes out of wood and hung them from the ceiling of a detached garage at Duke’s family home. The family had auto dealerships. Duke always had ‘˜demo’ cars – Hudsons and Terraplanes – and always ‘drove the hell out of them,’ Tag wrote. Duke was the only person with the guts to descend steep Sunset Hill in Anniston with his car in neutral without touching the brakes. Duke and Tag went to Auburn to study aeronautical engineering and were doing well in school and dating the girls. Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They became focused on how they could get into the war the quickest, went to the Navy recruiting office and were accepted for Navy Flight Training at NAS Jacksonville. Duke was aided by having already had civilian flight training which was unusual at the time. Duke reported to NAS Jax on April 30, 1942. Less than 10 months later he was commissioned as an Ensign. He missed the commissioning, however, for antics typical of Navy fighter pilots. The day before the ceremony, Duke was overcome by the desire to make a low pass under a Jacksonville bridge. Someone on the bridge noted the tail number on his plane and reported him. He was restricted to quarters for the ceremony but not from combat. Pilots were needed for the new Curtiss Wright Helldiver bombers and Duke was assigned to a bomb squadron in Jan. 1943. In May, he was assigned to the USS Bunker Hill which sailed for the Pacific in September. The bomber pilots and their single crewman learned how to fly the new bombers and went straight into action. Their valor is described at length in the book ‘˜Helldiver Squadron’ by Robert Olds. Duke saw intense action bombing and strafing targets at Tarawa, Rabaul and Truk. Despite his youth, Duke was one of the unit’s best pilots. He was a daredevil in the sky just as he had been on Sunset Hill and his flying exhibited his fearlessness. His call sign was ‘˜Willie.’ The Bunker Hill was assigned for attacks on Nauru, an island with rich phosphate mines. It has the distinction of being the only island attacked by the Germans, Japanese and Americans due to the phosphate and twin runways on its southern tip. On Dec. 8, 1943, Nauru was assaulted by the Helldivers, a fighter escort and Naval bombardment. The Helldivers began their first runs at 6:10 a.m, inflicting much damage on antiaircraft positions, barracks and radio towers. Rearmed, they went back later for a second run. Duke dove on a target, released his bomb at 1000 feet and scored a direct hit. He was strafing on his way out when other Helldiver jocks noticed smoke coming from his plane. The smoke grew thicker and darker. Duke’s Helldiver went into the water about a mile off Nauru’s northeast coast. Pilots circled the crash scene and a destroyer was dispatched. Though a life raft popped to the surface, Duke and his crewman, Charles Pointer Jr. of Kilgore Texas, were never seen again. In his book, Robert Olds notes Duke’s bull sessions with fellow pilots in the week before the Nauru attacks were often devoted to religion and the Bible. ‘Willie had been a clean-minded kid and a staunch defender of the Ten Commandments,’ he wrote. Duke died just over a year after his low pass under that bridge in Jacksonville and just three months after sailing for the Pacific. His country was at war and he, like countless other patriots, signed up for the fight. Duke was 21 years old with his entire adult life ahead of him yet he sacrificed those years for his country as did thousands of others. Duke’s remains were never recovered. But Suzanne and Garth Forster and Suzanne’s brother, Randy Pittman, and his wife Daina of Birmingham, made sure Duke got a headstone and military marker in Greenwood Cemetery adjacent to the graves of his sister, Gaie, and his frat brother and brotherin- law, Bill. No doubt, Pauline Williams is proud just as Duke made his country proud. Think of Duke and the millions of others who have fought and died for our country this Veterans Day.

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