WWII B-17 Gunner Dies Quietly After First Visit to UK Since 1945

U.S. military veteran Melvin Rector died quietly at 94 years old after completing his “final mission” of once again setting foot in London, where he served 71 years earlier during World War II.

He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which later became the nation’s Air Force, from 1943 to 1951 and earned the rank of master sergeant. Rector flew bombing missions over Europe as a member of the 96th Bomb Group.

“Until earlier this month, U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Melvin Rector had always regretted not having returned to the place where he served during World War II,” reports Florida Today. “This year, the 94-year-old … man who served as a radio operator on B-17 Flying Fortress bombers decided to return to a country he last saw in 1945: England.”

Rector flew “eight combat missions over Germany during the spring of the war’s final year,” adds the Washington Post. “On four of these missions, his plane came under heavy fire. One almost proved catastrophic, and the plane returned to base with holes dotting its wings.”

On May 6, the retired master sergeant landed in London, where he began a tour of WWII locations and memorials, courtesy of the travel program provided by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

He died on the first day of the trip — Rector’s first time back in Britain since 1945, points out the Daily Mail.

“Rector was scheduled to visit his former base RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, but started the tour at the Battle of Britain Bunker in the Uxbridge area of London that first day,” notes Florida Today.

The U.S. Army veteran was accompanied by Susan Jowers, 60, who first met Rector when she served as his guardian during a trip to Washington D.C. in 2011 to visit monuments erected in his honor.

“He walked out of that bunker like his tour was done,” Jowers told Florida Today, referring to the veteran’s brief London visit.

She said Rector complained about feeling dizzy as he stepped out.

“Jowers took hold of one of Rector’s arms while a stranger grasped the other,” notes the Florida Today. “Rector died quietly there just outside the bunker.”

“He completed his final mission,” declared Jowers.

The WWII veteran, a father of six, had been planning his trip to London for months, according to his stepdaughter who lives across the street from Rector’s home in Barefoot Bay, FL.

“He planned it for like the last six months,” stepdaughter Darlene O’Donnell told Florida Today. “He couldn’t wait to go.”

“Though no one knew him, the Royal Air Force, U.S. Air Force and historians in London attended and participated in the funeral with military honors,” notes the news outlet.

Jowers only expected a few people at Rector’s funeral in London, but it ended up earning media attention and attracting more people than expected, particularly from British ITV Network.

“He certainly got a beautiful send-off,” said Jowers. “People everywhere, from Cambridge to London heard his story.”

U.S. military personnel, including Army Maj. Leif Purcell, also attended the funeral.

“The representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army that I saw here was phenomenal,” said the Army major.

Sandy Vavruich, Rector’s daughter who resides in Gloversville, New York, indicated that her father was enjoying himself at the time of his passing.

“He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go,” she told Florida Today. “It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes and he passed away between them.”

Jowers’s father, who died when she was young, was a U.S. military veteran like Rector.

Honor Flight provided Rector with an all-expense trip to Washington D.C. in 2011, during which Jower served as his guardian.

“Since then we became like father and daughter,” she declared. “There was just something about Melvin. We had a connection.”

A funeral for Rector is scheduled at the First Baptist Church of Barefoot Bay for 11 a.m. on June 9.

His remains are expected to reach U.S. soil Tuesday. Rector was named Thursday’s #VeteranOfTheDay by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


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