Al Hamlett was just a youngster when he delivered newspapers for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, and he had no way of knowing that something behind one of the doors on his route would later become near and dear to his heart.
As it turns out, Hamlett most likely was tossing the day’s news from his bicycle to the front steps of the only man capable of capturing on film the image of his uncle’s ill-fated B-26 Marauder on D-Day as it fell in flames to the French coastline.
The Johnson City native never knew his uncle, but the discovery of World War II photos, letters, flight plans and a yellowed newspaper article describing the pilot’s death piqued his curiosity. That curiosity led to such intriguing finds that he now knows more about 1st Lt. James Burton McKamey than most, and it has helped cement his deeply vested interest in making the Johnson City-Washington County Veterans Memorial a success.
“I’m here out of respect for J.B.,” Hamlett, 59, a former FBI agent, said during a recent visit to the Press.
McKamey, also a Johnson City native, could have stayed in Lubbock, Texas, where he had been training pilots. Instead, he volunteered for active duty just before the invasion and found himself piloting one of many hulking bombers supporting the 160,000 troops that fought Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy.
It was June 6, 1944. D-Day.
His plane was hit by ground fire, and he and the other five men aboard were never seen again. He was 22.
Edwin Walters, yet another Johnson City native, was inside one of the bombers assigned to the mission and witnessed the event. He turned his camera on the flailing mass of flames and clicked a frame that managed to find its way in to a Press-Chronicle story published on June 3, 1984.
“I was in Connecticut at the time and learned about it from J.B.’s brother, Howard,” Hamlett said. “He tracked him down and found the photo. His (Walters’) intent was to give the photo to another pilot that was apparently a good buddy of my uncle.
“You have mixed emotions about it,” Hamlett said about viewing the photo. “My family had received a missing in action letter and had been informed by the U.S. Army Air Corp. That was in 1944. I hadn’t been born yet. I guess you try to imagine what it must have been like when you look at it. There’s no heaters, no flight attendants. They’re in these bombers for 15 hours, and these are 20-year-olds.”
McKamey was a Science Hill High School graduate and had attended East Tennessee State College. He joined the Air Corps in 1942.
Hamlett, who never got to speak with Walters and has never talked to any family members of the other five men who were on the plane, brought a photo album to the Press packed full personal treasures he’s collected over time.
“I have the last letter J.B. wrote,” he said, as he spread the memorabilia across a table. “He wrote to my grandparents before he went overseas telling them about the gas coupons he’d rationed and was leaving in his car at a Ford dealership. The letter said he couldn’t tell them where he was going.”
Hamlett also has found the flight plan for that fateful day showing in what pattern the planes were to fly and what times they were to perform certain maneuvers. He also has a list of the six-man crew and the faded Western Union telegram that announced to his grandparents that his uncle had been listed as missing in action on June 21, 1944. He also has photos of his uncle in uniform and on graduation day at Science Hill.
They later received a letter from the War Department stating McKamey had been hit by German gunfire and was presumed dead. And in 1946, McKamey’s parents received a letter from a bombardier who had been on that mission.
“He had been a bombardier in my uncle’s plane for about 30 missions,” Hamlett said. “But he got transferred to another plane before this happened. He sent a letter to his (McKamey’s) parents after the war, saying he’d lost contact with most of the crew but described the plane exploding.”
Coincidentally, Hamlett’s wife had an uncle who suffered a similar fate during the war.
“I know there’s thousands of stories like mine,” he said. “To know that is was from the late ’40s to 1984 that my family learned anything more about my uncle, I know others can learn more. I wanted to get my uncle on the veteran’s memorial. This is why this memorial is a must. The generations of today need to be educated concerning the sacrifices made by so many G.I.s and their families.”
The memorial has been in the works for nearly five years but has faced many hurdles, including financial roadblocks, which have delayed the start of construction.
The memorial will honor veterans from all branches of service who are from, or have a connection to, Washington County and Johnson City. It will be located in Johnson City at the corner of West Market Street and Veteran’s Way near the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and National Cemetery at Mountain Home.
Construction of the memorial, which will include curved black granite walls with the names of veterans inscribed and a gathering plaza for special events, is expected to be completed by Veterans Day.