Time Machine

Time Machine: Cedar Rapids pilot died in last days of WWII

James Ralston's ID tag was found among wreckage

This December 1939 Gazette picture shows the Coe College students who had signed up for flying lessons through a new federal program aimed at training more pilots as World War II was beginning in Europe. Kneeling (from left) are Pete Klimek, flight instructor; Robert Daniels, Cedar Rapids; James Ralston, Cedar Rapids; Ward Long, Cedar Rapids; Willard More, Mechanicsville; Gerald B. Lowe, Letts; Charles Greinke, Des Plaines, Ill.; and J.B. Lyman, Cedar Rapids. Standing (from left) are Dan Hunter, airport manager; Alfred W. Meyer, Coe faculty member teaching ground courses; James McFadden, Oelwein; James Wilson, Nevada, Iowa; Arthur Van Wyk, Sheldon; Paul Tschirgi, Reinbeck; Robert Foulkes, Des Plaines, Ill.; Frank Scheible, Cedar Rapids; John Kofron, Cedar Rapids; Francis Hidinger, Oelwein; William Duffy, Cedar Rapids; Robert H. Johnson, Clarksville; and Fred Hight, flight instructor. (Gazette archives)
This December 1939 Gazette picture shows the Coe College students who had signed up for flying lessons through a new federal program aimed at training more pilots as World War II was beginning in Europe. Kneeling (from left) are Pete Klimek, flight instructor; Robert Daniels, Cedar Rapids; James Ralston, Cedar Rapids; Ward Long, Cedar Rapids; Willard More, Mechanicsville; Gerald B. Lowe, Letts; Charles Greinke, Des Plaines, Ill.; and J.B. Lyman, Cedar Rapids. Standing (from left) are Dan Hunter, airport manager; Alfred W. Meyer, Coe faculty member teaching ground courses; James McFadden, Oelwein; James Wilson, Nevada, Iowa; Arthur Van Wyk, Sheldon; Paul Tschirgi, Reinbeck; Robert Foulkes, Des Plaines, Ill.; Frank Scheible, Cedar Rapids; John Kofron, Cedar Rapids; Francis Hidinger, Oelwein; William Duffy, Cedar Rapids; Robert H. Johnson, Clarksville; and Fred Hight, flight instructor. (Gazette archives)
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Weston and Gerdine Ralston moved to Cedar Rapids in 1933 with their sons, James, 13, and Weston, 10, where Weston started an insurance business.

James Ralston, a talented young baritone, displayed his singing in numerous musical productions and contests at Franklin High School, where he was in mixed chorus and the a cappella choir. He was a Boy Scout and member of the Masonic Youth Order of DeMolay. In 1936, his scout troop piled into two automobiles and drove to Moose Lake near Ely, Minn., for a two-week canoe trip into Canada.

When he enrolled in Coe College, he studied voice with concert singer Ralph Leo, the son of Cedar Rapids pioneer music teacher E.A. Leo. Also a baritone, Ralph Leo had studied at Juilliard after service as a Marine in World War I.

In December 1939, Ralston joined about 20 Coe students in ground-training classes in preparation for flying lessons. Dan Hunter, manager of Hunter Field, was the flight instructor. He mounted skis on the training planes so, when the weather cleared, the students could make their first solo flights and land on snowy fields. Ralston soloed on Jan. 30, 1940.

He and 10 other Coe students were accepted as flying cadets in the Army Air Corps in January 1941. Within eight weeks, they were in training at Army flying schools.

Ralston enlisted in the Army Air Corps in March 1941 and was commissioned as a lieutenant Oct. 31 at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and America’s entry into World War II, Ralston was stationed in Texas at the Goodfellow Airfield in San Angelo in 1942, at the Waco flying school as an instructor and then as flight commander at Majors Field in Greenville in 1943.

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Ralston came home in August 1942 to help his brother celebrate their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.

MARRIAGE, SON

In March 1943, Ralston was back in Iowa to marry his Franklin High School classmate, Kathryn Lynch. The newlyweds lived in Greenville until Ralston was sent to Tallahassee, Fla., in preparation for being shipped overseas in August 1944.

Kathryn returned to Cedar Rapids and lived with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Donald R. Lynch, on Blake Boulevard SE, where she gave birth to the couple’s son, Richard Weston Ralston, on Nov. 16. The baby was nicknamed Ricky.

James Ralston’s brother, Weston, now a sergeant, was stationed in England, serving as a radio operator on a B-17, where he would complete 30 missions over Europe.

MISSING IN ACTION

In April 1945, units of the American 69th Division joined with Soviet forces about 75 miles south of Berlin. Germany was effectively cut in two.

President Truman said, “This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British peoples, and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed for so long. The Anglo-American armies under the command of Gen. Eisenhower have met the Soviet forces where they intended to meet — in the heart of Nazi Germany.”

Another announcement shared the front page of the April 27 Gazette: “Capt. James E. Ralston, 24, pilot of a P-47 fighter, has been missing in action over Germany since April 12.”

The Gazette reported Ralston’s wife had received the message from the war department that morning.

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INVESTIGATION

In Germany, the war department sent 1st Lt. Steve Lazzio to investigate the reported crash of an American aircraft in the German village of Mistelbach in Bavaria in southeast Germany.

Lazzio examined the wreckage. The letters CHZ on the fuselage, a machine gun with a visible serial number and parts of an orange tail section helped him identify the aircraft as the plane piloted by Ralston.

Although no other identification was found on the remains, they were assumed to be the pilot and were buried near the crash site.

A local farmer, George Stalmann, found Ralston’s identification tag in the wreckage and turned it over to Lazzio, who had it affixed to a cross erected on the impromptu gravesite.

Ralston’s death was confirmed by the war department on May 22. The message to his family said that he had been killed April 12 while part of the 258th Fighter Group. The son he would never see was 5 months old.

In August, Ralston’s remains were disinterred and moved to the U.S. Military Cemetery No. 1 at Nuremberg before being reburied at the U.S. Military Cemetery in Lorraine, France.

On April 20, 1947, Coe vocal instructor Ralph Leo, at a ceremony celebrating student achievements, paid tribute to four Coe students, including Ralston, who had died in World War II.

GERMAN REMEMBERS

Earlier this month, 73 years after Ralston’s death, the newspaper in Bayreuth, Germany, retold the story of Ralston’s plane crashing in Mistelbach, shortly after 5 p.m., 40 yards from the farmhouse where Siegried Nutzel and others were sheltering in a cellar.

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Nutzel, now 77, recalled the “hustle and bustle” after the crash and fire and how, two days later, the war ended in Mistelbach when the U.S. Army arrived.

Over the years, Nutzel has put together documents, witness accounts and photos about the crash. They show Ralston’s plane had been fired on before the crash and was aflame when it clipped a barn before crashing into a house.

Nutzel told the newspaper he had visited Ralston’s grave “years ago,” saying it carries a white marble cross.

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