Timing is very important in life – it can have both trivial and monumental consequences and a fair amount in between. In 2005 I was experiencing the many joyful experiences associated with the arrival of my first child and negotiating a tricky 180 degree change in my career path. As a consequence, and much to my later regret, I never got around to purchasing a copy of Searching for Lieutenant Greene – The 351st Fighter Squadron and Operation “Market Garden” (Hoogkarspel, 2005) by Frederik Paauwe. Timing produced a trivial personal anecdote for me (relieved temporarily by the kind loan this week of a copy of the book by a good friend), but read this book and you will learn what timing cost a young American pilot called Robert N. Greene on September 17, 1944.
At this time the 353rd were flying support missions for the famous Operation Market Garden – the daring gamble by the Allies to shorten the war by capturing a series of bridges in Netherlands with airborne troops. The Group were tasked with flak suppression missions to protect the heavily laden transport aircraft delivering troops and supplies to the battle area. So intense was the fighting that the Group were awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation for their contribution. Doubt not that these were immensely dangerous missions – the Group lost six pilots during this time. According to his biographers, Charlotte and John McClure, Dave Schilling, the famous leader of the 56th Fighter Group at the time, refused to fly any more of these missions after his Group lost 16 pilots. He was relieved of command temporarily by the Commanding General of the 65th Fighter Wing and reinstated only after tempers had calmed down.
Robert “Bobby” Greene was a replacement pilot who had only just joined the 351st Fighter Squadron. He was flying his third mission on the day he was lost when his own bomb blast set fire to his aircraft forcing him to bail out too low for his parachute to open. He was so new that his Squadron Commander did not even remember him years later when questioned about him (similarly he has left practically no trace in Group records or photographs). Yet Mr. Paauwe has, in 124 pages, done an immense service in assembling what is available in the official record and supplementing this with his tireless efforts to seek out information on the young pilot from Norfolk, Virginia. Though not of the wartime generation himself, Mr Paauwe’s connection to the story comes from being local to the area of the tragic events of 1944. The “searching” of the title is apt for the book describes his quest to find the truth behind the event and who Bobby Greene was.
Throughout Mr. Paauwe sticks closely to the available documentary evidence and uses this to good effect to tell the story of the fateful mission. This task alone required trips to the United States to visit the archives, localities known to Bobby Greene and to the 2001 P-47 Thunderbolt Pilot’s Association Reunion to meet his comrades. What is pleasing is that he sticks pretty close to the known facts and never lets speculation get the upper hand. The main conjecture he allows himself is the possibility of a German flak gun might have been responsible for the loss, but he makes it quite clear this is only a possibility based on some circumstantial evidence.
What is even more remarkable, however, is that Mr. Paauwe’s quest did not stop at telling the story of the mission. He traced the sister of Lt. Greene and has, with her help, provided a much fuller picture of who this young pilot was through his letters home. Whilst he does not have much information on his stateside training he makes good use of the experiences of fellow students in Class 43K to bring to life what Lt. Greene must have encountered before reaching Raydon. The truly commendable part of the book is that he does not portray Lt. Greene to be somebody beyond the evidence or as fitting some wider agenda. We learn that he was a fairly religious person, but that he was also “Scared as hell” at the thought of entering combat for the first time. He was also, in the words of a fellow pilot, “un-coachable” regarding target discipline and this may well have contributed to his untimely death. One gets the strong impression of a young man (he was four days away from his twenty-first birthday at the time of his death) who tragically did not have the time to gain the skills and knowledge that perhaps would have saved him.
The Greene family experienced their full share of wartime tragedy – Bobby’s brother Frank was also killed in the Pacific and they did not have Bobby’s fate confirmed until September 1945. The details of the father’s letters to his son attempting to get news after his death detailed in this book are heartrending. It would be hard to see the positive side to this story, but the memorial service at the crash location on September 17, 2001 and the unveiling of a memorial plaque (that you can see HERE) are a fitting and worthy commemoration. That these came about largely because of the efforts Mr. Paauwe is another reason for the 353rd community to thank him for all his tireless efforts to see that the sacrifice of this pilot was and is remembered.
The original book was limited to 100 copies and the second revised edition of 2005 has been out of print for some time. So if you are lucky enough to have a copy of this very fine book, dig it out and read it again or if you find one buy it and read it and if you find two send one to me as I sadly have to give this copy back…