Long-lost Elgin pilot remembered by those he fought for in World War II
By Dave Gathman firstname.lastname@example.org February 10, 2014 5:26PM
Giles Roserens (left), a defense attache with the U.S. embassy in Paris, delivers a eulogy to Elgin-born Lt. James Meagher and other U.S. pilots killed during WW II in France as James Dieval, who pursued memorializing the pilots, looks on. | Submitted
Updated: February 11, 2014 2:31AM
ELGIN — Warehouse manager-turned-fighter pilot Jim Meagher died 70 years ago last Saturday in air-to-air combat over Nazi-occupied Europe. His body would go undiscovered for another 67 years before being unearthed and brought back to Gilberts, the place of his family’s roots, for burial.
But at least one modern-day Frenchman is determined that Meagher will never be forgotten.
Thanks to pressure from 49-year-old French electrician James Dieval, a “ceremony of tribute” was held on Feb. 1 at a World War II memorial in La Neuville-Housset, France, to honor Meagher and four other American pilots killed on Feb. 8, 1944.
Speaking to The Courier-News via emails, Dieval said a wreath was placed at the foot of the memorial while flags of both the United States and France flew. Dignitaries included the superintendent of a nearby American cemetery, a military attache from the U.S. embassy in Paris, and the top elected official in the French Department of the Aisne.
Dieval, an amateur historian who wasn’t even born until 19 years after the war ended, also has been pushing local French authorities to erect a memorial to Meagher at the site where his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter crashed and burned near Burelles, France. The crash site is 15 miles from where last week’s service was held.
Life runs into war
Jim Meagher grew up in Elgin, the son of a woman who later died while giving birth to one of his sisters. He graduated from Elgin High and attended the University of Illinois in 1937-38. By 1941, he was 24 years old and was managing the L & B Storage Co. warehouse in Elgin and was living in a tiny white house along Logan Avenue with his wife, the former Leone Pfister, and her father.
Sometime in early 1942, the young family man decided to join the Army Air Corps and learn to fly. He probably had been caught up in the wave of patriotism and anger that swept America after the Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941.
When Meagher set sail from New York on June 30, 1943, Leone was eight months’ pregnant with a child he would never live to see. On July 22, three weeks and one day after he sailed, his wife back in Elgin gave birth to a daughter they named Patricia Lee.
Stationed in England with the 352nd Fighter Group — who called themselves “the Blue-Nosed Bastards of Bodney” — Meagher named his plane “Patricia Lee.”
By Feb. 8, 1944, he had flown 40 missions, either escorting American bombers to and from Germany, or strafing and bombing airfields used by the rival German Luftwaffe (“Air Force”).
A pilot who flew with him, Bob “Punchy” Powell, told a reporter in 2011 that Meagher was well on his way to logging the 200 hours of combat time that was required before he could go home on leave and see his new baby. But as Meagher and four other “Blue-Nosed Bastards” flew over Mons, Belgium, that day, they heard a radioed plea for help from a B-17 bomber that had been forced to drop out of its formation because of battle damage. As the Thunderbolts sped toward the wounded bomber, Powell said, four German FW-190 fighters came diving out of the sun, blasting away at the Thunderbolts with 20 mm cannon. Two of the American pilots managed to escape, but Meagher and two others were never seen again.
Twelve days later, Leone Meagher received a telegram saying her husband was missing in action. Patricia Lee, was 7 months old.
When no word came from the Germans that they had captured a prisoner of war named James Meagher, suspicion rose steadily that he would never come back. But Leone and Patricia never knew for sure. Leone never remarried.
Life went on back in Elgin. Neighbors banded together to help the young presumed widow build a bigger house in the same neighborhood. When she began suffering from senile dementia in the 1990s, Patricia — now in her 50s — reportedly moved in with her. Leone Meagher died on July 31, 2001, at age 83, never having found out for sure what had happened to her husband.
Unknown to the family, meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department had been on the trail of the three missing airmen since at least 1947. Allied analysts poring through Luftwaffe documents found a mention that on Feb. 8, 1944, the four FW-190s over Mons had continued a running dogfight with three P-47 pilots and finally had shot them all down over northern France. Another German document, titled “Salvage of Enemy Aircraft,” told of carrying off recyclable metal from a farm field near Burelles on March 24, 1944. “Kind of landing: Crashed, On Fire,” the German document reads. “Crashed: 8 Feb. 1944 at 1120 hours. Crew: 1 man. Dead: 1 man.”
But it was not until 2006 that a group of French people living near Burelles put American investigators back onto the scent. An 82-year-old farmer recalled that his father had buried pieces of metal and an American’s body so they could plant crops at a plane crash site. In 2007, a team of U.S. Defense Department archaeologists dug up the site and found machine guns, bits of parachute, bones and teeth that they finally identified as belonging to 1st Lt. James Meagher. But it still wouldn’t be until March 15, 2011, that someone from the government tracked down Patricia Meagher and told her what had been recovered.
In August 2011, the forever-27-year-old pilot’s remains finally came home to Illinois. With a military honor guard and family members attending, Meagher was buried in the cemetery outside St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Gilberts.
Family of fliers
Patricia Meagher could not be reached for comment for this story. She told Defense Department investigators she did not want to speak to the press.
But Jim Meagher came from a large and well-known Gilberts and Elgin family that had often sent its sons — and at least one daughter — off to fight for their country. And he was just one of three members of the family who were shot down while flying planes in World War II, although he was the only one who was killed in the process.
Alice Meagher Kelly, a first cousin of Jim Meagher, is now 101 years old and lives in Bartlett. She said she grew up on a farm near Gilberts that has since become part of the Meagher-Freeman Kame forest preserve. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, she joined the Women’s Army Corps, or WACs, and was assigned to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill., to do physical therapy on wounded airmen. She later became a teacher in Carpentersville.
Her son, Michael Kelly, was village president of Bartlett in the early 2000s.
Alice Kelly said her brother, Joseph Meagher, joined the Army Air Corps and became a pilot flying A-20 light bombers in Europe. On his 65th mission, on Dec. 22, 1944, while Joe was attacking a target in Germany, an anti-aircraft shell blew up near his plane, wounding him. The plane made it back behind friendly lines before crashing. But the war was over for Joe Meagher.
“While Joe was on a train full of wounded men, the doctor who came to examine him turned out to be one of our cousins from Chicago,” Alice Kelly said. After the war, Joe Meagher moved to Ohio and started a paper business. He is now 93 and lives in a nursing home there.
“I also had a cousin who was shot down in the Pacific and was missing for 13 days,” Kelly said.
Grateful for sacrifice
Back in France, Dieval said he hasn’t had any contact with Patricia Meagher. “I understand she does not wish to dwell on the past,” Dieval said.
But after The Courier-News wrote about the remains being identified and the funeral was held in Gilberts, Dieval said, one of Jim Meagher’s great-nephews and a man describing himself as a “distant cousin” of the pilot have come to Burelles. They have visited the crash site and gotten to know this electrician, who has turned their family member’s memory into his pet cause.
Meanwhile, Dieval said he is frustrated by French government indifference to his pleas to erect a monument to the dead flier who gave his life helping rescue Europe from Nazi occupation.
”In France, if you are not a politically supported person or a big patriotic association, you can (accomplish) nothing,” he said.
Dieval has posted a video of the Feb. 1 ceremony at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oyguvUS-wc.