A decorated Navy pilot from Joplin, missing in action since the plane he was flying disappeared in the early days of World War II, is the subject of research by an Illinois man looking for information about his own uncle who was part of that plane’s crew.
Ensign Richard M. McWilliams, of Joplin, was 22 when the plane he piloted disappeared off the coast of New England on Aug. 30, 1942, during a routine nighttime patrol searching for German submarines that had been marauding U.S. merchant shipping since the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war in December 1941.
David Browning’s uncle, James Edward Browning, an 18-year-old aviation machinist mate third class from Effingham, Illinois, was one of the four-man crew on the Lockheed Hudson patrol bomber that night.
McWilliams and James Browning, along with Robert C. Delaney, 20, of Richmond, Virginia, and Albert E. Jurca, 25, of Needville, Texas, were declared missing when the bomber failed to return.
David Browning said he had heard a few stories about his uncle and been able to do some research before his father, Robert Browning, died at age 85.
After his father’s death, David Browning inherited a number of photo albums and letters his grandmother had saved, including photos of his uncle and letters he sent between the time of his enlistment in the Navy in June 1941 and his death in August 1942.
“I’m really interested in World War II," Browning said. "I loved history, and I just wanted to learn more about this uncle. My goal at first was just to find these families and share photos and stories and make that connection we never had. As far as knowing about McWilliams, I think I know he never married or had children or had a family, but I don’t know that either. I don’t think he did. I don’t know what else I want to know or what there is to know.”
The Joplin Globe archives shows three articles about McWilliams, one on Sept. 1, 1942, the day after his plane was reported missing; one on Sept. 10, 1942, saying no trace of the plane had been found; and a third from the end of the war on Aug. 9, 1945, announcing that McWilliams had been posthumously awarded an Air Medal and a presidential citation for his meritorious service in the Navy.
According to the articles, McWilliams, son of Mr. and Mrs. J.B. McWilliams, 3030 Joplin Ave., graduated in 1937 from Joplin High School and attended Joplin Junior College.
The Sept. 10, 1942, article said that while attending college, he took “a civil aeronautics authority aviation course at the Joplin airport.”
He enlisted in the Navy on Feb. 22, 1941, was trained as a pilot at Pensacola, Florida, and commissioned an ensign in the Naval Air Reserves on Oct. 8, 1941, just two months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The article on Sept. 1, 1942, announced that the McWilliams plane was missing and the family had been notified.
The newspaper articles say the plane disappeared on Aug. 30, 1942, while an official report Browning received from the military through a Freedom of Information Act request says the plane disappeared on the night of Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, 1942.
The article on Sept. 10, 1942, offers more details. That article says the plane took off from the naval air base at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, on a routine nighttime operational flight and was in radio contact with base until early in the morning.
The base sent a radio message ordering it to return to base on the theory that the crew could receive radio messages but couldn’t send them, but the plane never returned.
Army and Navy planes searched the area for several days, but no trace of the plane was found.
“Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams hold out the faint hope that their only son may have been picked up by some outbound ship and yet may be heard from,” the article said.
The 1945 article says McWilliams was one of the first, if not the first, Joplin pilot to lose his life in World War II. He saw extensive duty flying anti-submarine patrols off the U.S. Atlantic coast, covering merchant ship convoys and flying night patrols looking for surfaced German U-boats.
The article quotes the presidential citation: “For meritorious achievement in aerial flight as a pilot of a U.S. Navy patrol plane attached to patrol squadron 82 ... during extensive escort and anti-submarine patrol missions in the North Atlantic area from December 26, 1941, to June 15, 1942.
“A skilled and aggressive airman, Ensign McWilliams carried out many extremely hazardous search missions throughout the winter months despite the dangers imposed by low visibility, icing, blizzards and high winds, providing effective cover for our vital convoys operating through the perilous waters, effecting the rescue of many survivors from the icy seas and contributing materially to the elimination of the submarine menace in this area.
“Ensign McWilliams’ outstanding courage, unwavering perseverance and zealous devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Browning said he knows about his uncle from the letters and photo albums saved by his grandmother and father.
He knows quite a bit about crew member Albert Jurca because a member of his family has researched Jurca’s past and gave him pages of information about him. He said Jurca’s family immigrated from Czechoslovakia and settled in Texas.
But Browning knows little about McWilliams and the fourth crew member, Robert Delaney.
“There was some information in the articles you sent me that I did not know,” David Browning said. “Every time I get something from a family member, there’s more details thrown in. I think the biggest thing I want to get out of this is closure because none of us knew what happened to them, what happened to their bodies. We didn’t know how they died, any of those details. We’re all in the same boat, and I don’t know how a family gets closure on something like that, but if you share a common experience with the other families, maybe there’s something there.”