This Veteran’s Day follows closely a special anniversary for a local family, who lost a son and brother near the end of WWII in Europe.
The 70-year anniversary of the death of Air Force Lieutenant Robert Banta was September 12, 2014.
On September 12, 1944, a 23-year-old Banta died in the crash of a B-17 bomber in a field in Germany after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire and suffered an attack of German fighter planes. Banta, the young bombardier, was one of 14 children raised on a farm on County C west of Soldiers Grove.
After graduating from Soldiers Grove High School, Banta went to school in Platteville and then moved on to work in the massive Badger Ordinance plant in Baraboo. Like everyone his age, he registered for the draft in Prairie du Chien in July of 1942. Then, on August 25, 1942, Robert Banta enlisted in the Air Force.
“He wanted to be a pilot,” his younger brother Bill Banta remembered. At the American Legion Hall in Soldiers Grove last Saturday, Bill, who lives in the Madison area, spoke about the 70-year anniversary of Bob’s death. He and his wife Pauline were seated just ten feet away from a model of a B-17 airplane, which hangs from the ceiling of the Legion Hall. Like the plane in which Bob was flying when it crashed and he was killed, the model is called Tailwind, and was built by Doug Peterson. Peterson is Bill Banta’s brother-in-law. He built the model plane to show the family what the plane Bob was flying aboard in Germany actually looked like.
The Tailwind was on its nineteenth mission that day in September of 1944. Bill Banta believes it was his brother Bob’s sixteenth or seventeenth mission in the plane. The Tailwind left its base in England headed to its target, a synthetic fuel plant in the Germany’s Ruhr Valley near Berlin, according to historical information about the flight. A complete story about the mission written by Doug Peterson and Vernon L. Williams appeared in the 306th Echoes, a magazine dedicated to the history of the U.S. Air Force’s 306th Bomb Group. Most of the historical information presented here was taken from that story.
Through a navigational error of the lead plane in a group at the front of the formation, the planes got too close to Berlin and came under intense antiaircraft fire, according to information gathered about the mission later. The Tailwind took flak burst of antiaircraft fire to the wing knocking out two engines. The crew was able to drop the bombs and head for home.
Then, they came under attack of German fighter planes. Another engine was knocked out and they were flying on one damaged engine with very little power. The Tailwind headed west hoping to land in neutral country, according to reports of the incident.
With many in the crew wounded, it was decided that everyone would stay in the plane and try to land rather than bail out in parachutes. As the situation deteriorated, it became obvious to the pilot Captain John Sasser and the others that a crash landing must be attempted. As they came in low toward an open field still in Germany, the last running engine gave out. The plane dropped suddenly onto an oak tree at the edge of the field and broke apart before it could land. Of the nine crew members, five were killed and four were injured. One of the injured, the pilot Captain Sasser would later die of his wounds in a German Prisoner of War Camp.
“They might have made it if they hadn’t hit that tree,” Bill said of the crash, as he recalled some of the information last week.
Bill Banta didn't remember all of the details of his older brother’s life and his enlistment in 1942. He explained that they were part of a family of 14 children and each of the sibling’s went their own way, as they got older. However, Bill did remember that it was the Soldiers Grove grocer Dave Davidson who received the telegram that Bob had been killed in action in Germany.
In September of 1944, Lieutenant Robert Banta, the farm boy from Soldiers Grove, was buried in a German cemetery. Three years later in 1947, his remains were exhumed and brought back to the United States and he was buried in the Soldiers Grove Cemetery.
Last Saturday, his brother Bill and his sister-in-law Pauline sat in the empty American Legion Hall under the model plane made by Pauline’s brother, Doug Peterson. Peterson’s love of making the model planes served him well in recreating the Tailwind model. With a little research on the Internet, he was able to get the markings of the plane correct, right down to the nose art of the Tailwind. That nose art featured the name Tailwind and a picture of a young woman with her skirt being lifted by a breeze.
At one point, Bill and Pauline Banta got a little quiet thinking of Bob’s sacrifice for his country so many years ago.
“He was just a small town boy who wanted to get into the Air Force,” Bill said of his older brother.
“Yes, he was just a farm boy from a big family,” Pauline added.
For his part, Bill Banta joined the Marines at the age of 16 in 1945 just as the war was ending in Japan. Another Banta brother also fought with the Marines in the south Pacific.
“It was a sense of duty,” Bill said remembering the times. “You had to do it. Everybody did it.”
As for their mother, “she never got over the loss of Robert,” Pauline said. “It was devastating.”
Pauline did note their mother did get some solace from one the survivors of the crash. The surviving member of the crew later assured her Robert did not suffer nor was his body badly mutilated. His fellow airman said it looked like he was asleep at the end.
Despite the great loss to the Banta family, Bill displayed an attitude so characteristic of those who lived through WWII. He was quick to note that many others served and sacrificed as well.
“Some lost more than that,” Bill said of his brother’s death in Germany. He recalled the story of the Sullivans, when five members of one family were killed when a ship went down in WWII.
“You know I’ve never really hated anyone,” Bill said at one point. “But, I hated, just hated, two people in this world. I hated Hitler and I hated Tojo.”
Then, Bill Banta paused to reflect on those times for just a moment in the Soldiers Grove American Legion Hall last Saturday.
“You know it would have been a much different world right now, if we hadn’t beaten Hitler,” Bill said.
So, when Veteran’s Day arrives next Tuesday, Nov. 11, think for a moment of Lieutenant Robert Banta, the farm boy from the big family, the small-town kid who wanted to join the Air Force. Remember the sacrifice made 70 years ago in a field in Germany and think for a moment of the sacrifice that so many from the area and across the country have made over the years. Please remember that on Veteran’s Day on Tuesday, Nov. 11.