The Price of Freedom
The Memorial Day Holiday Weekend means different things to different people: The unofficial start of summer. The end of school. Neighborhood picnics. For Southwest Florida, a weekend soaker from the 2018 Hurricane Season’s first tropical system. To many families, however, it is a time to honor those who served our nation in the military, especially those brave souls who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our freedom, even if that occurred decades before.
A B-26 Marauder left Fort Myers’ Page Field on November 16, 1942, shortly after 6 p.m., with its last radio transmission at 6:55, over the Gulf, near Sanibel. When it failed to return, the military initiated search & rescue efforts. Six crewmen lost their lives; the pilot, Lieutenant (Lt.) Donald Vail, and copilot, Lt. Fred Dees, were able to bail out, but ultimately drowned, with their bodies found five days later. Authorities never located the other four: Staff Sergeant (SSGT) William Kittiko, Lt. Louis Mikes, SSGT Milton Newton and SSGT Richard Treat.
In 1991, Fort Myers fishing boat captain Tim Wicburg discovered a crashed airplane, thinking he found a United States Central Intelligence Agency craft long rumored to have gone down in those waters, carrying millions of dollars stolen from Cuba by its former dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who Fidel Castro overthrew on New Year’s Eve 1958, hence the legend of “Batista’s Gold!” Thinking he would one day be a rich man, Captain Tim kept the location to himself, waiting for the perfect opportunity that would not occur for 17 years.
In May 2008, he felt he finally found the right partners, and teamed with divers from the Fort Myers-based Underwater Historical Explorations (UHE), including UHE cofounder Tom O’Brien, legendary Fort Myers Beach Hall-of-Fame diver Jon Hazelbaker, and retired Air Force crash investigator Major Kevin McGregor, to undertake an extensive crash site excavation. They did not find “Batista’s Gold,” but something even more important – the radio call tag that identified the missing B-26 from 1942!
Mark Casey is the nephew of the late William Kittiko. “UHE cofounders Tom O’Brien and Tracy Miller contacted my Mom, Abigail, in 2008. She was then 84-years-old and still alive, telling her they found the airplane of her long-lost brother. Unfortunately, Mom was quite elderly and tended to believe in Nigerian Princes, so I became concerned when she contacted me about this almost unbelievable story, so I called them to learn what was going on, and we had a pretty intense conversation, but they convinced me they were telling the truth. This was on a Wednesday, with Mom and my sisters in Pennsylvania and I in Arizona, and by that weekend, we were in Southwest Florida, where UHE took us to the crash site to hold a beautiful memorial service.”
While Mark is not sure this gave his Mother complete closure, “it definitely allowed her to close the loop, to understand what happened to her brother, because her Mom, my Grandmother Rose, never really believed her son was gone. She was already a widow, and losing William was devastating. There was a rumor around the base at that time, that the military found the airplane and everyone was still alive somewhere, but kept this secret for security reasons, and she believed that until the day she died in the 1980s.”
“One a Day in Tampa Bay!”
Many B-26 Marauders called the Sunshine State home throughout the 1940s, conducting countless training flights in preparation for service in the Second World War. Marauders were twin-engine planes that flew at nearly 300-miles-per-hour, with slightly over 5,000 produced between 1941 and 1945. Pilots had difficulty, however, landing them at the recommended 150-miles-per-hour, as that was significantly faster than other planes, causing them to try to slow it down, resulting in stalled engines and crashes. This originally earned them the nickname, “The Widow Maker,” while coining the Southwest Florida phrase, “One a Day in Tampa Bay!” Following design changes and improved pilot training, the B-26 Marauder ended World War II with the lowest loss rate of any United States Air Force bomber.
“The US was rushing into war, despite being an isolationist nation,” explained Mark, “and President Franklin Roosevelt sold it to the American people by saying it would be mostly fought by the Air Force, with few ground troops, so we produced a lot of planes rapidly, with little testing, meaning crews conducted the tests while learning to fly them. The Marauder was incredibly difficult to fly, with serious design flaws, and in this particular case, whatever occurred happened out over the water, in the dark. A subsequent Air Force investigation placed the full blame on Vail.”
The UHE team, based on their investigation, came to a different conclusion, especially after they raised one of the propellers in 2008. Their analysis leads them to believe the propeller became a “runaway.” This occurs from an engine design flaw that lets it accelerate in a rapid and uncontrolled fashion, forcing the airplane to flip, spin and ultimately crash. They feel that if Vail had proper training, he would have shut off the improperly-operating engine, with the disabled aircraft having enough maneuverability to safely return to Page Field. Despite this theory, the United States Air Force has yet to reopen the official inquiry, with no plans to do so.
“I feel bad for the memories of Vail and Dees,” said Mark, “as the Air Force seemed to forget they had families. The government ended up admitting there was a design flaw, and corrected it, with the Marauder being a very effective aircraft, particularly over Europe, but too late for these pilots.”
Ten Years After
With the 10th anniversary of the crash site’s discovery approaching, UHE contacted Mark, suggesting another memorial to mark the occasion. “I established relationships with many of the other families over the years, so I contacted them. Fred Dees III was all in favor, and we actually discovered Christine Spitz, the grand-niece of Lt. Vail, who lives in Cape Coral, with no knowledge of this. Members from the other families could not attend, and unfortunately we have never made any connections with the Mikes family, though we continue to research them.”
The families gathered from May 11 to 13: “We had a get-together on Friday,” Mark related, “then we boated to the crash site for the memorial on Saturday, and on Sunday we dedicated a refurbished exhibit to the mission at the IMAG History & Science Center at 2000 Cranford Avenue, near Downtown Fort Myers. Those three days flew by!” The May 12 memorial included prayers, remembrances and flower wreaths in the water, with divers taking family items to the crash site. On Sunday, Mark gave a presentation, discussing the deceased crew. For more information on the mission, exploration and exhibit, see uhexplorations.com
Young Men, With Bright Futures
“These were young men, with bright futures, who left behind grieving families,” Mark explained.” Lt. Dees was to take over his family’s pharmacy business when through with his service, and SSGT Treat was to do the same for his family. Lt. Vail was a scholarship winner who planned to be an athletic coach. Perhaps Lt. Mikes was the most tragic, as two months earlier, his brother Emil passed away in another military air crash, with neither body being found. The irony is they were what the military called a ‘Replacement Crew.’ The US was really ramping up its war effort, so they came to Fort Myers to train as replacement members for other crews already in service. The Air Force put this group together quick, so they did not really know each other well.”
Mark could not be more complimentary toward UHE. “They started all this by searching for gold, and came up with a dry hole. It would have been so easy to just walk away, but they got involved completely, and treat our lost relatives with such honor and respect. In our society, where people seem to care so little about one-another, this speaks volume about their character!”
He is happiest for Fred III and Christine, “This was their first memorial. I also think this story reminds the average American about the sacrifices that young men, and now women, make for our nation. War is not a movie or video game, and we fight it with real people, for the good and sometimes not so good of our nation. These six young men gave their lives in an experiment, to prepare their country for action. In our modern world, fewer families have a direct military connection, as we no longer have a draft, so not everyone supports the military the way we used to. For many, Memorial Day is a day off work or time to buy a new car on sale, and they forget that actions like this cost the lives of real people, so I am glad Fred III and Christine participated, to understand that reality, and the price of freedom.”