FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The letters were a surprise.
It was 1973 when Ken Elder Bledsoe, a now-retired Fort Collins history teacher, found them tucked in the bottom drawer of his father's desk in southern Colorado. Bundled together, there must have been more than 40 — and a scrapbook, too, with faded newspaper clippings and photographs from life in Australia in 1942.
The images gave a glimpse into the Army Air Forces during World War II, and into the life of Vernon Elder, a 24-year-old tail gunner from La Junta, Colo.
The discovery came while Bledsoe was going through his father's house after Elder's unexpected death in a car accident in 1973. Due to his parents' divorce when he was young, Bledsoe said, he never knew much about his father or his wartime contributions.
He hung onto the letters for years. After retiring in 2002, Bledsoe started piecing together a story he had heard from his aunts at his dad's funeral — about Elder surviving a deadly plane crash off the coast of Australia and dragging his best friend's body from the wreckage.
Soon, he was tracking down the families of the men Elder flew with, researching the Army Air Forces’ 19th Bomb Group, 30th Squadron — which his father was a part of — and, eventually, he was 10,000 miles from home, flying into a dinky island airport on a runway his father often departed from 60 years earlier. He recently published a book about the journey.
The story started to come together when Bledsoe and his wife organized the letters Elder had written to his mother in 1942.
"Once we put them together in chronological order, here's this story," Bledsoe said. "A dramatic story started to appear."
A yellowed newspaper clipping from the La Junta Daily Tribune further sparked Bledsoe's interest.
"La Junta Lad Escapes Serious Injury In Pacific Plane Crash," the newspaper article read, going on to describe the plane crash near Australia's Horn Island that killed three crewmen. Elder was one of five men who survived.
After finding the letters and newspaper article, "all I knew was his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean," Bledsoe said of his early days researching the story.
Crediting his knowledge of history and research — he taught history for 24 years in Fort Collins — Bledsoe looked into his father's squadron. He learned the identities of the other men aboard B-17 No. 655, and found, among the letters, a tattered and water-damaged watch his father was wearing in those early hours of July 14, 1942. It froze in time at 3:34 a.m., four minutes after the plane took off and crashed a mile off shore.
After hunting down more letters and talking to the last surviving member of the crash, Bledsoe was able to narrow in on the crash site. In 2010, Bledsoe and his wife, also a retired teacher, traveled to Horn Island.
They hired fishermen to take them to the suspected crash location and Bledsoe geared up with a snorkeling mask to dive down during low tide and find the wreckage. Photos from that day show underwater images of a wrecked engine and part of a wing — remnants of B-17 No. 655.
Elder and two other crew members on board were from Colorado. Lt. Paul Lindsey, a pilot from Canon City, had attended Colorado A&M (now Colorado State University) before the war and Sgt. Houston Rice, from Ordway, was Elder's best friend. Rice was killed in the crash, but Lindsey and Elder survived. Together, they kept Rice's body afloat until an Australian boat rescued them. Lindsey died a month later on a separate mission.
"For no apparent reason we started to go down; the old plane just wouldn't climb," Elder wrote about the crash in one letter. "We really hit the water, and it was an experience I'll never forget. I was in the radio compartment and went through the right side of the fuselage. Bruised and cut me up pretty bad but nothing very serious. Rice was by the ball turret and was apparently killed instantly."
Elder left Australia in December 1942, and after settling back in La Junta he married and had one child, Bledsoe. At the time of his death, he was a produce manager at a grocery store. He never got in a plane again or told his son about the crash.
"He never was quite the same (after the war)," Bledsoe said.
After his trip to Australia, Bledsoe pieced together his book, Echoes From an Eagle, which was published last year. In total, Bledsoe said he spent a decade researching his father's military history. He talked to the families of his dad's wartime friends. He traveled the same roads his father had almost 60 years before. And he swam in the waters that almost swallowed up a B-17 bomber with his dad inside.
"It was a combination of research just, as a dedication," Bledsoe said.
A dedication to his father and "all those WWII fliers."