Sometimes stories disappear.
Joe Camp made sure a story was not forgotten. He is the author of “Langdon Liberando”, a book on the life of Langdon Wilson, a native of Abbeville and veteran of the Second World War. The book is only available at McCaslan’s Bookstore in Greenwood.
While many stories focus on heroes or standouts, Wilson’s story was that of an “average Joe” who performed regular service with others like him.
Wilson was about as average as anyone could get. He grew up in Abbeville County and attended Erskine College, but did not graduate. He was interested in flying, and when the nation entered World War II, Wilson probably dreamed of flying fighter jets, Camp said.
The US Army Air Corps had other ideas. After training, Wilson was made a co-pilot in a B-24 and put into the 376th Bombardment Unit (Heavy) and 513th Squadron, which flew missions from North Africa to southern Europe.
“I can only say he was someone who wanted to be a glamorous fighter pilot, a P-40 fighter pilot,” Camp said. “He was probably very disappointed when he was sent to a bomber unit.”
Most people who flew B-24s hated them. … “No one was happy when they were thrown on the B-24,” Camp said, although his book features people speaking fondly of the plane.
Yet Wilson, like other men who dreamed of being a fighter pilot, did his job.
Wilson’s service during the war might have gone unnoticed had it not been for Jenny Kelly of the Abbeville County Historical Society. The group has a collection of documents and memorabilia from their service in the former McGowan House.
Camp gave a presentation to the Greenwood Historical Society about one of his World War II books in 2018. Kelly said she spoke with Camp about the collection and asked if he would be interested in it. writing a book.
He accepted. Camp pored over the Society’s documentation, which included Wilson’s journals, flight logs, photographs, and other documents. Then he hit roadblocks. Specifically, nearly everyone connected to Wilson and his unit was dead. Wilson died in 1967, and his wife died in the 1990s. Camp’s research then focused on organizations that looked at World War II, particularly the 376th.
In some cases, people weren’t interested in sharing information, Camp said. The 376th Association apparently didn’t want people to write about the unit. It is mostly made up of children of veterans. One member was apparently writing his own book. Camp said another association member was helpful.
Some journal entries were apparently not accurate. Often, Camp said he thought the entries were written from memories. In some cases, veterans’ diaries are more like memoirs. Few entries overlap exactly; they might be different from mission logs and other logs. In some cases, people pretended to participate in missions in which they did not participate.
Social media groups have been contacted about the unit’s story. The camp was lucky to discover that the unit had a surviving member. Byfield “Flash” Gordon served as the pilot. He was 97 years old and his mind was sharp. He was, however, in hospice care and died within a week.
That left Camp chasing the records. People provided unpublished memoirs and diaries. A family provided records on a roll of computer paper run from a late 1980s or early 1990s dot-matrix printer.
Collecting material on Wilson and his unit took nearly four years. Summer 2021 was the breakthrough. Camp said he had enough material to make a decent book. The work was completed in the summer of 2021.
You have to get used to cold calling strangers to do research and get them interested in what you do. It’s a bit like “American Pickers” knocking on doors.
Often, family members didn’t know anything about a relative’s service and “they would say ‘Grandpa never talked about the war,'” Camp said. Each family had relevant information important to them. It could be something bigger when put together with other information, much like puzzle pieces.
In another instance, a relative showed Camp a locker containing all the letters sent by a relative during the war. It was the most comprehensive documentation from the start of the war until the day he was killed, Camp said.
It was a struggle to unearth Wilson’s story. That was the real challenge; it’s the most difficult book he’s written so far, Camp said.
“Joe kept going, he really worked so hard trying to make contact,” Kelly said. “The good news is that it’s been done and Camp has done a great job. It’s a great book and very detailed. I know Langdon would be very proud.
What’s wonderful is to have Wilson’s flight log. It’s like watching a movie, says Kelly. They must have been nervous when they went up. They were all going up and coming back and waiting to see who would come back. It must have been nerve-wracking.
Before Wilson joined the 376th, he was notified of bombing raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, which supplied fuel to Axis military forces.
During the war, the 376th was famous for having the tightest formation in the service, Camp said. They flew triangular shapes, then moved on to diamond formations. German fighter pilots often tried to break up loose formations by flying into them, scattering the aircraft.
This tactic did not work well against the pilots of the 376th. The cover of the book features a photo of aircraft flying in formation with wingtips almost touching.
This is all the more impressive given the length of the missions. Camp said some missions will last eight to nine hours. The B-24s were physically difficult aircraft. They had no hydraulics. The controls ran on cables.
It proved difficult for Wilson after he was shot in the leg while on a December 1943 mission over Sofia, Bulgaria. His injury made long-distance flying missions more difficult, Camp said. It continued to fly until May 1944.
The company’s exhibit features shrapnel from a 20mm shell that hit the co-pilot’s section of the plane. Camp said it could be the piece removed from Wilson’s leg.
Wilson was likely disappointed that he couldn’t complete the required 50 missions with the rest of his crew, he said.
“I think he wanted to be somebody,” Camp said. But Wilson became the first pilot and eventually flew his own crew and completed all 50 missions.
“I don’t think he was quite the same after getting injured,” Camp said. Wilson himself said in his diary entries that he had the tremors, writing “I don’t know if I can do this.” He said he wasn’t the same anymore.
After the war, he joined the Air Force and got into cryptography and communications security. He retired in 1966.
Often the pilots kept huge books recording their hours. Wilson’s book began in 1943. He logged hours, either when there was an instructor, or as a pilot or co-pilot, and detailed the duration of missions.
Wilson flew some as a single fighter in classes to maintain his flight certification. He did work as an instructor pilot. A lot of training was in DC-3. It was about stealing whatever was available. He might even have flown a jet in training, possibly a T-38 trainer. Most of his hours were on C-47s or other transport vehicles.
Over the years, the newspaper carried notices of restrictions or grounding for medical or other reasons. Wilson rarely stayed in one place for very long.
That’s why Camp thinks PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) may have been a problem.
“We tend to believe they were the greatest generation,” Camp said, referencing the book of the same title, written by Tom Brokaw, and referring to the “Band of Brothers” miniseries in the early 1990s. 2000.
The guys themselves probably didn’t think they were the best generation. They had a job to do and they got together to do it.
“I think most of them would be very humble about it. For them, the heroes would be the guys who didn’t come back,” he said.
“It’s a very clear book,” Kelly said, adding that they should all be remembered. “He (Wilson) was not a famous driver. He was an average Joe who gave it his all.
“He was an everyday veteran who didn’t accomplish anything great, but he survived,” Camp said. “It was an incredible story that has almost disappeared. With the help of Jenny and the Abbeville Historical Society, we made it work.
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