From Wales to Alburtis, in search of WW2 hero
Steve Jones, a resident of Port Talbot, Wales, Great Britain, spent this spring traveling the Lehigh Valley and points beyond on his motorcycle. But he is not exactly what you’d call a typical tourist.
The 56-year-old could be called a history buff. For the last 30 years, he has been researching aviation history in South Wales. He’s studied all kinds of stories and events. He’s also pursued some of them. But one in particular, one that happened more than 75 years ago, brought him to the small borough of Alburtis, Lehigh County.
“Around 1995, I researched the story of how seven USAAC [United States Army Air Corps] B-26 [crew members] were lost on their ferry flight from the U.S. to the U.K. via the southern ferry route,” he says in a phone interview while traveling on his motorcycle in Florida. “Two of these planes sadly crashed in Wales.”
One of those planes, nicknamed “Lil’ Lass,” crashed on a mountainside in fog near St. David’s, Wales. The other, which went by the name of “Mi ’Laine,” crashed into a farmer’s barn in fog near Lianelli, Wales. Both crews perished.
“I have researched both the ‘Lass’ and ‘Laine’ crews,” says Jones.
One of the members aboard the “Mi ‘Laine” remained largely a mystery to Jones. It was that mystery that compelled him to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to meet a man that he will never truly know, but undoubtedly wishes he did.
Hero then and now
Raymond J. Shoemaker was born Aug. 17, 1913, to William and Elsie Shoemaker in Mertztown, Longswamp Township, Berks County.
Shoemaker, a graduate of Alburtis public schools, gained employment as an automobile mechanic in Reading. Sunday mornings were typically spent at Longswamp Lutheran Church where he was a member, according to “Lest We Forget, Those Who Served in World War I & II,” a book chronicling Alburtis veterans by author Allen Oswald and edited by Scott Stoneback of The Media People. Proceeds from book sales benefit the Alburtis Lockridge Historical Society.
Shoemaker’s life changed, and so did the nation’s, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America was at war.
Four days later, Shoemaker raised his right hand and swore his allegiance to his country and entered the United States Army in Reading. Soon, the small-town country life he had known would change and change quickly.
In a few days, Shoemaker embarked for training at Keesler Field in Mississippi. It wasn’t long before he headed north to Baltimore where he studied at Glenn Martin Bomber School. Then back south to Lakeland, Fla., for navigation training.
In months, Raymond “Dutch” Shoemaker went from fixing cars to fixing aircrafts. Aircrafts defending freedom across the world.
As the battle between the Allied and Axis forces intensified, Shoemaker was assigned to the 322nd, Bombardment Group, Army Air Forces Bomb Squadron, where he served in the European Theater.
When June 4, 1943, rolled around, Shoemaker had achieved the rank of technical sergeant. It was that day he and his crewmates on the “Mi ‘Laine” took off into the sky. It was last day of Shoemaker’s life.
“Ray was the hardest to trace as he was the only child and his line of family died out when he passed,” Jones says. “Not much is known locally about the crash as it was heavily censored during the war years.”
“I wanted to find out more information about this forgotten story and to find out and record the names of the men who died in the crashes,” Jones says. “To speak of the dead is to make them alive again.”
Jones travelled to Longswamp and Alburtis and began to do some roll-up-your sleeves investigating. Going on the information and thanks to some contacts he had made, he was able to learn more about this quiet man.
“I was able to meet Ray’s distant nephew and niece, Robert and Linda, of Huffs Church,” Jones says of the village in Hereford Township, Berks County. “They are also trying to find out about their uncle.”
Jones got in touch with another Shoemaker relative, Kevin Shoemaker, of the Alburtis Historical Society.
The contacts proved valuable for Jones. As a result, he was able to visit Shoemaker’s grave at Longswamp Lutheran.
“He is at peace with his parents, William and Elise,” says Jones.
“Got to admit, a tear rolled down my face when I saw his headstone,” says Jones.
Jones saw Shoemaker’s portrait on the wall at the Lonswamp Community Center. He took a trip to Reading, and stood outside Shoemaker’s apartment which he had shared with his wife, Anna Mae.
In Alburtis, Jones stood along Second Street, his mind envisioning the scene nearly 100 years ago.
“No doubt, Ray would have once walked and played on this street as a kid,” Jones says.
Raymond Shoemaker lived a quiet 28 years. His life was one of dignified simplicity. Love for his family, his wife, his faith and his country. He and his crewmates, and all veterans who perished for the nation, died heroes.
“They gave up their futures and dreams so that today we live in a free world,” says Jones. “Yet most local people have never even heard of these events.”
They may know now, thanks to a man named Steve Jones from Port Talbot, Wales.
Copies of the book, “Lest We Forget, Those Who Served in World War I & II,” are available at Alburtis Borough Hall, 260 Franklin St., Alburtis, and Alburtis Lockridge Historical Society, 407 Franklin St., Alburtis. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org; Kevin Shoemaker, President, Alburtis Lockridge Historical Society, 484- 366-9987.