By Dave Reynolds
Above, a photo booth sequence of shots of Verne Zornes, whose C-47 crashed in March 1944, just a few months before D-Day operations. Photo courtesy of Dave Reynolds.
The smiling soldier in the faded green uniform was always there, perched high on the pale-green dining room wall at my Grandma Zornes’s house. Like the capstone on the top of a monument, his image had been placed with loving reverence above all the other school portraits, group photos, and fading Polaroid snapshots crowded together along the back of her walnut buffet.
When I was a kid in the mid-1960s, we traveled to the West Central neighborhood of Spokane every couple of months to spend the afternoon at Grandma’s turn-of-the-century home on West Boone Avenue. And a couple times a year we’d have get-togethers with dishes of hot and cold comfort food placed end to end on her kitchen counter and in the center of her big round dining table.
And all the while, the soft image in the 8 X 10 smiled down over every Easter ham, every burning birthday candle, every card and board game.
Nobody told me he was important. Nobody had to. I just knew.
Later in life, I started a 25-year journey getting to know the mysterious 19-year-old at the top of Grandma’s dining room shrine. I became immersed in the story about his life and his death and the impact both had on our family. By bringing him out of the shadows I would learn things, do things, go places and find connections I could never have imagined.
Lester LaVerne Zornes, or “Verne” as his family and friends called him, was the oldest brother of my mom, Naomi Zornes (later Reynolds and Spiess). He was born on October 24, 1924 and grew up in Nine Mile Falls. In the middle of the Great Depression, the family moved to the Latah Creek Valley south of Browne’s Addition and built a modest house along the creek at 3501 S. Inland Empire Way. The house was demolished after my grandparents moved to West Boone, but if you drive in the northbound lanes of Highway 195 just before you reach the Burlington Northern Railroad overpass, you might feel the ghosts of that house’s past.
I never met Uncle Verne. He died on March 22, 1944, sixteen years before I was born. When I talked to people who knew him, the things they said were so alike that I wondered if they had all gotten together and scripted what they would say if any curious nephew might ask. Each said Verne loved to make people laugh. He would often make up poems or songs to bring out smiles in others. He loved cars and airplanes and his family.
Verne studied auto mechanics through a federal technical training program in the Lowell School on Inland Empire Way at 23rd Avenue, before graduating from Lewis & Clark High School in June 1942. Within three months of graduation, he was working for the U.S. Department of War as a civilian mechanic helper at the Army Air Forces Depot west of Spokane, where Fairchild AFB is today. He was earning $100 a month, which was rather respectable for a 17-year-old boy in those days.
“How to Fly the C-47” can also be found on YouTube.
Verne started his military career with the Army Air Forces on March 17, 1943, going through basic training at Sheppard Field, TX, and then learning Radio Operations and Mechanics at Sioux Falls, SD. In February 1944, he was promoted from P.F.C. to Corporal, and was assigned as Radio Operator on board a C-47 military transport plane with the brand new 442nd Troop Carrier Group based out of Warrensburg, Missouri.
In 2014, I discovered 66 letters, one postcard, and a government issued Mother’s Day card that he wrote home during his year and one week in the service. Like so many young men in the military, this dutiful son hand wrote at least one letter home every week. I also discovered more than 140 letters that family members and friends wrote to him, including his Japanese-American friend Kiku Ueda.
These letters were the text messages, email, Facebook and Skype of the day. They described the local news and weather, who was doing what, and what life was like in Spokane under gas, tire, and food rations.
Through Verne’s letters, I felt his excitement, facing new challenges thousands of miles from home, and his hopes for the future, including floor plans he drew for a house he planned to build near Spangle after the war.
Every letter has one or two playful gems. For instance, in a letter dated July 24, 1943, he wrote about the heat in Sioux Falls: “The weather forecast is a military secret, but a rumor has been going around that the Devil has been seen in a real estate office looking for some land near here.”
And after a six-hour visit to the Big Apple, he wrote on February 22, 1944: “New York is a nice village. It has a main street called Broadway and is considerably larger than 9 Mile Falls. Times Square isn’t what I expected it to be, but the Paramount Theater took my breath away. The ‘luxurious’ Fox Theater, that’s a laugh. You could put four Fox Theaters in the Paramount and still have room enough to see a show.”
On March 11, 1944, Verne’s squadron got their overseas mission orders. Within a week, he wrote a V-Mail letter while in Brazil. A few days later the family received the telegram informing them that Cpl. Lester LaVerne Zornes died when his plane went down in western Africa.
Our family was left with lots of questions. Why did his plane crash? Why was he in Brazil and Africa? Why weren’t his remains brought back home to Spokane?
The answers I found came from declassified reports, interviews with survivors, and stories involving everything from international espionage, organized crime, freak weather events, and spooky premonitions. Finally, on the 70th anniversary of his death, our family was able to bring Uncle Verne back home in our own way.