For years after the B-17 bomber went down on Sept. 9, 1944, carrying U.S. Air Force Sgt. Donal H. Laird and eight other airmen, Ruth Laird typed letters to various military officials seeking information about her son.
Laird, a San Luis Obispo High School graduate, was reported missing in action over Germany, according to a letter Ruth Laird received from the War Department dated Sept. 23, 1944.
Then, on April 16, 1945, another letter arrived with more information: Donal Laird, a ball turret gunner on “Strictly G.I.” of the 91st Bomb Group/323rd Bomb Squadron, was flying its first mission over Ludwigshafen, Germany, when it dropped out of formation on the return trip.
Four of the crew members survived and were taken prisoners of war. Five others, including Donal Laird, did not.
Ruth Laird kept writing, trying to find more information.
Today, the letters are yellowing and growing brittle with age. Lori Laird-Allen, one of Ruth’s granddaughters, keeps them carefully tucked away in plastic bags at her San Luis Obispo home.
In a 1948 letter to a brigadier general, Ruth Laird wrote that parents of the other airmen killed in action had been told their sons’ bodies were identified in Germany and moved to another cemetery in Belgium. It’s unclear if she ever got a response.
Even after the family held a full military memorial service for him in 1950, there was a sense that Ruth Laird never really had closure.
“They said they found his dog tags, and that’s all I’ve ever been told,” Laird-Allen said.
Several weeks ago, Uwe Benkel was searching for a missing German aircraft around Hassloch, near Ludwigshafen. Benkel is a member of Search Group for the Missing, which researches missing aircraft and their pilots from World War II.
So far, the group has recovered the remains of more than 140 aircraft and 45 missing crewmembers, he said in an email.
During their work in Hassloch, the group was given fragments of a gold watch that had been found in 1944 next to the body of a crewmember near a downed aircraft.
On the back, it was engraved: “Donal Laird 1940.”
Benkel put out a message on an Ancestry.com Facebook group.
“For our group it is very important to give those personal items back to the families,” Benkel said. “It is like bringing back something from the past. And it is also important for the families to know what happened back then. Most of the relatives (know) little of what happened.”
Debby Potter, who lives in Kansas, saw Benkel’s message on Facebook and decided to help.
“It didn’t take very long before we knew that Donal had a brother, that that brother had passed away and the brother had living children,” Potter said in a phone interview. “That was easy. It was finding the living children that was difficult.”
On Ancestry.com, Potter found a family tree with the Laird line included. She sent a message to the creator of the family tree.
On March 25, Laird-Allen got an email from a niece.
“I got a funny message today on my Ancestry account from somebody talking about Lori’s family line,” the email read. “I don’t know if you know anything about how a family watch would have wound up in Germany.”
Potter had left her number. Laird-Allen dialed it.
“We were both crying on the phone,” Laird-Allen recalled. “I just had chills.”
On Tuesday, Laird-Allen and her sister, Tammi Laird-Menezes, stood in front of their uncle’s marker at San Luis Cemetery.
Donal Laird was just 17 when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. He enlisted the following April, after he turned 18.
“I never met him, but I heard he was the sweetest person,” Laird-Allen said. “I know he was a Boy Scout. He had a paper route.”
Her grandmother, Ruth Laird, moved to Indiana in 1944 to be closer to her husband, Harry Laird, who had served in the Army in World War I and rejoined the service during WWII.
The family, including Donal’s younger brother Edgar, moved back to San Luis Obispo after Harry Laird was released from the service in 1945.
Edgar Laird remained in San Luis Obispo, where he opened Cuesta Realty and had four daughters.
Harry Laird died in 1979, followed four years later by his son, Edgar. Ruth Laird died in 1999, leaving trunks full of memories of a son who loved airplanes.
“When he was a little boy, he drew planes. He wrote poems about flying,” Laird-Menezes said.
Laird-Allen recalled traveling several times to Europe with her grandmother. Once time, they took a boat trip down the Rhine River, near Hassloch. Another time, they went to Belgium.
“She made sure we went there, but she never said anything — I think she was researching,” Laird-Allen recalled. “I know my grandmother was really lost without him.”
Soon, Laird-Allen and her sisters will have another piece of the puzzle, one more answer about what happened to their uncle 71 years ago: The watch is in the mail.