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Tragedy and Irony in the Death of Ben Zumwalt (This Time It's Personal)

Um. Did ya miss me? :-) I know there's been a serious lag in posting here at Southern Graves. My last article was in (gasp!) September. Of. Last. Year. A lot of stuff going on in real life as of late. I'll have to fill you in sometime.

The following was originally posted on my now defunct personal family history blog more than five years ago. I'm moving it to this space and adding some appropriate FindAGrave links...

Enhanced image.
Original by Kelli
Smythe via FindAGrave
Isaac and Elver Zumwalt were laid to rest in Nichols Cemetery at Ingram, Kerr County, Texas. Also located in Nichols Cemetery is a red granite marker memorializing the son of Isaac and Elver pictured here. His name was Ruben F. Zumwalt. I had found Ruben and his parents in 1920 and 1930 Kerr County, TX census records, leading me to believe Ruben had been born about 1914-5. According to his stone, however, "Ben" was born 21 June 1919. His death date was listed as 20 May 1943.

The picture of Ben on his memorial, as well as his year of death, led me to search the World War II Honor List of Dead. Sure enough, I found him. TSgt Ben F. Zumwalt from Kerr County, Texas "died, non-battle." I assumed he died of sickness or something like that. I was not prepared for what I found next.

A casual search of Ancestry's Historical Newspaper Collection resulted in an article from the San Antonio Light (Texas) dated 21 May 1943:
2 Texans Die In Chicago Plane Crash
The public relations office of the Fort Worth army air field Friday had disclosed the names of the nine crew members and of one of three passengers aboard a B-24 army bomber which crashed into the world's largest illuminating gas storage tank at Chicago Thursday.

Bodies in the wreckage were consumed in a blaze which destroyed the 500-foot tank surmounted by a 50-foot air beacon.

The bomber, groping its way at only 100 feet altitude through unfavorable weather, smashed into the tank filled with 18,000,000 cubic feet of illuminating gas, causing an explosion that rocked southwest Chicago.

Flames shot hundreds of feet. They were followed by a dense pall of smoke which spread over the region as tar used for sealing the tank burned and smoldered.

The tank, except for about 100 feet at the base, was demolished. Huge pieces of steel plate, some of them as big as the front of a two-story house, were hurled 100 yards or more.

The heat was so intense that temperatures rose for nearly a mile away. Windows in some of the homes in the sparsely settled section were too hot to touch.

...The toll of 12 dead was the greatest in any plane disaster in the Chicago area.

The flight was in charge of Capt. James R. Gilcrease of Fort Worth, commanding officer of the 1014th squadron and a flight instructor.

Others of the crew:
Second Lieut. David S. Alter, an instructor from Pittsburgh, Pa., who was married about six weeks ago. His widow resides in Fort Worth.

First Lieut. Harry B. Messick Jr., of Indianapolis, who was in charge of [the] navigation section of the field's ground school and navigator for the flight. His wife resides in Fort Worth.

Second Lieuts. Frederick L. Dutl of Wadsworth, Ohio, and John C. Wallace, son of Mrs. Henrietta Wallace, of Luling, student officers.

Pfc. Nick Lonebar of Wierton, W.Va.; Sgt. Arthur A. Huber of Queens, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Norman W. Yutzy, Canton, Ohio, and Technical Sgt. Ben F. Zumwalt of Ingram, Texas, aerial engineers.

The identified passenger was Capt. A. W. Lent of Hamilton field, Calif...
That was certainly a tragedy. Here is the irony from a Dallas Morning News (Texas) article dated 26 February 1942, less than 15 months before Ben's death:
Reads Own Obituary, Enjoys It, Too, Writes Pearl Harbor Survivor
KERRVILLE, Texas, Feb. 25 -- How it feels to read your own obituary in your home-town newspaper is described in a letter received here from Ruben Zumwalt, Kerr county youth attached to the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. In mid-December [an] official report from Washington to Zumwalt's parents said he had died as a result of the Jap attack on Dec. 7. The young man's obituary was published locally before mail from him definitely established that he was still alive, and that the government report was in error.

Upon reading the obituary published here, young Zumwalt wrote back, telling his feelings. "I could not help grinning a little when I read it, and enjoyed it immensely," he wrote. "Realizing that it is a rare thing for a man to have the opportunity of reading his own obituary, I thought you might like to know I appreciated it." In closing he said he hoped the obituary wouldn't have to be reprinted "for a long, long time to come." [Emphasis mine.]
My connection: Ruben F. Zumwalt was a 2nd cousin, 1x removed of husband of 4th cousin, 4x removed.


CW Whitney lll said…
You do good work stephanie.
Anonymous said…
Rueben Zumwalt and Benjamin Zumwalt were brothers - not one in the same!
My Uncle Rueben lived until 1995. I visited him in Kerrville. I also visited my grandmother in Ingram, TX were she talked about her beloved brother Ben. How he died in plane crash trying to come visit her.

S. Lincecum said…
Thank-you, Marcella, for clearing up my mix-up!
Susan Girard McMarlin said…
Thanks, Marcella, for clearing the confusion. My mother, Eloise Zumwalt Girard, was saddened the rest of her life at the death of her brother, Ben. She would often tell us fun stories about him when growing up in a family of six children. Before the war, the sons worked for their father at a garage in the family business. The girls work in the restaurant and the grocery store with our grandmother. In time, three sons joined the military--all three branches. The exception was the youngest son, Robert, who spent a career in police work.

Mother said Ben was very handsome and cared a great deal about his personal appearance. For example, after he joined the Army, he had his issued uniforms tailored to fit. Yes, he died in a military plane crash--and according to a letter he wrote my mother, he was taking the flight and would be visiting my Mom. He wrote that he wanted to see her and her new baby daughter, me.

S. Lincecum said…
Thanks so much for sharing your family stories, Susan.

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