06-29-2017 Tri-City Area History Page

Benton Harbor Fruit Market

North Berrien Historical Museum is always interested in photos, stories or information sharing.  The museum can be contacted at 269-468-3330 or by email to info@northberrienhistory.org.

From the photo collection at the North Berrien Historical Museum

300 Coloma Avenue, Coloma

The Paw Paw River Journal

He finally came home

It took Billy Van Camp over 50 years to come home from World War II.  Billy, a slender blonde kid, was a little younger than I was. I knew him, but we were never close friends. A quiet guy, he quit school as soon as he was old enough. Back in the day his dad ran a taxi service out of a little hotel right across from the depot. His mom died when he was just a kid, and his younger brother, Charlie, was adopted by some relatives. But Billy’s dad would not let him go, so he grew up in a motherless household.

The war came and I lost track of him. He enlisted in the Air Force and because of his small size they sent him to gunnery school… there he became a ball turret gunner on a B-24 called Cold Iron. This is one of the least jobs I’d like to have in the flying part of a war. You were curled up in a Sperry Ball Turret on the underside of the airplane with twin machine guns and belts of ammo. Two ways out of it… either up into the ship, or straight down and use the parachute. Stuck in any other position and you were just there for whatever happened to the airplane.

The crew of Cold Iron received their orders to proceed across the Pacific and join the campaign to push Japan back through the Islands to their homeland. When they arrived and reported for duty, they were given an unusual and somewhat dangerous assignment… photo reconnaissance. That means they would fly over Japanese installations, recording everything with cameras. They had to leave behind all bombs and lighten the load so as to carry more fuel.  On one such mission they just disappeared and never returned home!

Family members of the crew were notified that they were ‘missing in action’ and later when they were never found, that was changed to finality. Years passed. Then one day in 1989 a college professor took a class into the mountains on Guadalcanal looking for rare plants. This island was the scene of horrible fighting in WWII, and was strewn with wreckage and graves… the detritus of war.

Climbing a jungle hillside, they spotted some bright metal… aluminum! It was a wrecked airplane, and on the side of the nose was painted a logo… Cold Iron! Our government sent out a team of experts to collect the bodies… 10 of them. But after 50 years, recognition was impossible. They were all sent to our lab in Hawaii, where scientists began the laborious task of sorting out DNA. And this is where I got into the picture!

The Chief Accountant and I were vacationing in Florida when we got a phone call from the Hartford Library. The U.S. Government had called looking for relatives of one William Van Camp! Would I talk to them? You bet I would. And a lady called me… she was the one in charge of finding and notifying relatives of missing servicemen. They were looking for a relative to check against Billy Van Camp’s DNA and I.D. him positively. Billy had a brother, Charlie, who had been adopted out, had been in the Navy, and was supposed to be in California. Could I help them?

I said I had a friend out there with service connections, and I would call him. Bick Beckwith was a retired Colonel in the Air Force… a Hartford boy, and a friend of long standing. Bick went to work, and finally found Billy’s broth