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After 72 years, a Jackson County World War II hero is coming home

Staff report

Jackson Newspapers

RIPLEY, W.Va. — Not many families can say they’ve waited MORE than a lifetime for something. However, for an extended family centered in the Sandyville area of Jackson County, West Virginia, that is exactly what is happening.

Clarence Dragoo

Not many families can say they’ve waited MORE than a lifetime for something. However, for an extended family centered in the Sandyville area of Jackson County, West Virginia, that is exactly what is happening.

In October of 1944, Clarence Dragoo, a Gilmore High School graduate with the Class of 1941 left for overseas duty. Dragoo had attended Capital City Commercial College in Charleston, West Virginia where he was President of the Pi Rho Zeta fraternity and involved in the drama club. He performed on the WCHS Radio Station and worked as a bookkeeper. After two years in college, Dragoo decided to serve his country by joining the US Army Air Force.

Dragoo was inducted in Huntington, West Virginia in January of 1943. Six days later entered active duty at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. Dragoo earned his navigator’s wings and commission at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana on July 3, 1944 and arrived in Italy in November of the same year.

The 21-year old navigator on a B-24 Liberator went through a “baptism by fire” and lived to tell about it. While over a railway pass, Dragoo’s plane was sprayed with hundreds of gallons of highly inflammable gas when the Liberator immediately ahead was hit by flak and exploded in mid-air. Dragoo’s Liberator became a flying torch, capable of igniting at the slightest spark. With blackened windows and damaged rudders, flying blind using only instruments was the only way to return the plane to her base. Miraculously, the crew managed to do this. Upon returning, Dragoo related that he was able to use everything he had learned in navigation school.

On February 28, 1945, a change in crew landed navigator Dragoo on the B-24 Liberator manned by a crew known as the “Hanson Crew.”

The B-24 was a part of the 716th Bomber Squadron, 449th Bombardment Group. The Liberator departed Grottaglie Army Air Base in Italy targeting the Isarco-Albes railroad bridge in northern Italy. The destruction of this bridge was a key objective in the 15th Air Force’s effort to destroy railroad choke points and railroad cars.

Upon completion of the bombing run, all the participating aircraft headed to the rally point where they would reform and return to their base. While leaving the area, witnesses reported that the aircraft carrying the Hanson crew was skimming mountaintops with damaged engines. Pilot Hanson radioed that one of the engines had re-started, but witnesses said the aircraft continued to fall until it could no longer be seen by others in the formation.

On March 16, 1945 Dragoo’s mother, Mrs. Stella Dragoo received a Western Union telegram officially informing her that her son had been listed as Missing in Action over Italy.

In the months following the crash, the remains of four crew members washed ashore in various places in Italy.While searching for their own lost comrades, a set of remains bearing American Army Air Force clothing and identification tags was recovered by the Germans. The remains

were returned to American military authorities in Europe who confirmed them to be a fifth member of the B-24 Liberator.

Both during and after World War 11, the American Graves Registration Service searched for and recovered fallen Americans in the Mediterranean area.

In 1948 the group convened in Rome, Italy to discuss the recovery of the six remaining crew members. Based on the area and known information, the group deemed the aircraft and missing crew members “non-recoverable.” Twenty-one year old Second Lieutenant Clarence Dragoo’s death date was reported as February 28, 1945.

ROYAL RED DEVILS Luke Radabaugh and Ali Westenhaver are crowed Mr. and Miss Red Devil 2017 by 2016 royals Hayden Mandrake and Hannah Staats during RvHS Homecoming half-time ceremonies Friday night at Flinn Field.
In the years that followed, life continued on for the Dragoo family. However, life was never the same for his immediate and extended family. Mother Stella’s son would never return to West Virginia. Dragoo’s siblings (including older sister Dorothy, younger brother Melvin, and younger sister Bernice) would never again see their brother. Bernice would never again talk to her “best friend.”

The handsome young navigator, who was once treasurer of his FFA chapter, editor of his high school yearbook, and drama club performer would never get the chance to share his talents with the world. Never again would he pick up his guitar and sing at the Copper Fork Community Church. Never again to fill the airwaves at WCHS Radio with his voice.

Time wore on, and family members passed. But Clarence’s story was kept alive and passed on to the younger generations. Great-niece Tereasa Staats Yates remembers that “the iconic photo of Clarence in front of the Liberator always hung in Grandma’s house.” Tereasa’s father, Jim Staats, was 2 years old at the time of the incident. The younger sister Bernice is now of advanced age and living in California. Those remaining are a host of cousins, nephews, nieces…including the generation of great-great-great nieces and nephews.

In 2013, an Italian citizen wrote to military researchers about the discovery of underwater aircraft wreckage off the coast of Grado, Italy. He believed it to contain possible human remains. A dive team was sent to investigate.During a second dive, searchers found and photographed a portion of the aircraft bearing serial numbers that corresponded to 2nd Lieutenant Dragoo’s B-24. Working together with the Grado Civil Patrol, US military officials were able to secure the site and prepare for recovery.

In 2015, a team of divers worked to recover both human remains and the wreckage of the aircraft. After 220 dives, the recovery mission was complete. Maternal family members submitted DNA samples and earlier this summer (2017) the remains of Second Lieutenant Clarence Dragoo were positively identified.

In an unlikely twist of fate, it was learned that one of the Navy divers on the recovery team had a West Virginia connection. Not only a West Virginia connection, but a Jackson County connection.Diver Nate Johnson’s mother Terry grew up in Ravenswood and graduated there. She followed the story because of her son’s involvement and was able to share pictures of Nate on the recovery mission with family here.

It’s been a long time coming. It’s been MORE than a lifetime for the extended Dragoo family. But on October 12, Clarence will come home by way of Yeager Airport. He’ll be escorted form Yeager Airport in Charleston to Ripley and Waybright Funeral Home by family and friends, and members of the Patriot Guard.

Visitation will be October 14 from 11 a.m.-12 noon at the funeral home. A funeral procession will leave Waybright Funeral Home at around 1 p.m. and follow Route 21 through Ripley north to Independence Cemetery at Sandyville for burial.

Ripley VFW Post 5501 would like for everyone and all veterans to gather at the post located on Route 2 North to around 1 p.m. to pay a last tribute to a fallen hero.

A wreath will be laid at the cemetery gravesite by Post Commander Jack Juniper and Adjutant Ray Shockey.

Ripley Mayor Carolyn Rader hopes to line the streets with flag-waving supporters as the funeral procession makes its way to Sandyville.

After more than a lifetime…72 years to be exact, Clarence Dragoo will be home and laid to rest with his family at Independence Cemetery.

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