Tribute to a Soldier – Vernon F. Cummings
There is a stone set flat into the earth at Emery Cemetery east of Phillips, WI. An American flag waves alongside. Vernon F. Cummings it reads. October 7, 1919 to May 8, 1944. He was just over 24 years old.
Vernon was raised in Emery township, the son of Mr. and Mrs. James Cummings and in May of 1941 he married Marie ‘Mary’ Huml, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Huml, also of Emery.
Curly, as he was known, bravely answered the call to defend the world against the Nazi regime. His love of country and his love of family, one in the same. For a young man raised on a Wisconsin farm, the adventure the military life offered must have seemed heady indeed.
It was 1942 when he entered the Army and began his basic training in Florida. He then went on to the Armored Schools in California and Colorado before gunnery training in Nevada and Utah. With Mary at his side and their young daughter, Laverne, he completed his training at Riverside, California as a right waist gunner on a B24 Liberator.
Then in January of 1944, he left to join the fight overseas. Mary returned home to Emery to await his return and the birth of another child.
A mere two months later the Phillips Bee carried the headline, ‘Vernon Cummings Bags Nazi Plane,’ and quoted a story that had first run in the Milwaukee Sentinel. Family and friends bragged, “That’s our boy!” Mary was so proud. The crew of the Liberator had been flying back from Berlin, on their way to England, when they encountered a column of German fighters. They were praying one minute and cussing the next, the article said. Three Nazi planes were taken out that day. Curly claimed one of them. Safely back on England’s soil one can only imagine the celebration.
Then, a short month later, the Liberator came under surprise attack. They were flying over Brunswick, getting ready to turn for the bombing run, when German fighters came from four thousand feet below and another group from above. It happened so fast the Liberator crew did not see them until they were in their faces. Curly kept them in his sights and fought for all he was worth. The firestorm was over in minutes, but the plane took nearly a hundred bullet holes ranging from baseball size to rips more than a foot long. One 20-millimeter shell tore through one side of the plane passing under Curly’s arm and out the other side within inches of another gunner. It was a miracle that not one of the crew suffered a single scratch.
Twice Curly’s bravery earned him the Air Medal for Exceptionally Meritorious Service in action over enemy territory. The mixture of fear and pride young Mary must have felt at reading of the exploits of her husband. All she wanted was for him to come home safe and sound. For the three of them to be a family. For the baby on the way to be healthy and know the love of its father.
But then, in May, only five months after he had left, his letters stopped. A seed of fear settled over the family waiting in Emery. And then the telegram came. It was from the War Department. ‘Tech Sergeant Vernon Cummings has been reported missing in action over Germany since May the eighth’ it said.
Mary was terrified at the possibility that all her hopes for his safe return would be dashed. She made phone calls and wrote letters, but no one could give her the assurance she needed. The pilot and other members of the crew, she learned, were reported as prisoners of war in Germany. Surely, he was among them. Simply missing from the list.
For three long months she waited, as did their families, and all of Emery. In that time, Mary gave birth to another daughter, Sheila. She looked into the face of that tiny girl, praying for the day she could share her with Curly.
Then in August another telegram. This one from the International Red Cross. Vernon Cummings had been killed in action. At that time, his body had not been recovered.
This could not be. Mary refused to accept the terrible news. In time, she contacted the other members of the crew searching for some evidence that he was still alive. The crew members were certain he had been killed by gunfire as they parachuted out.
What heartbreaking news that must have been. Mary would have to find her way in this life without him and she did. She eventually married again, had another daughter, and raised a step-son. But she never forgot that brave young man that took her heart soaring with him over Germany.
Love, you see, never dies. It takes on different shapes and forms and is sometimes sent to a place in our hearts that may not be seen, but is always felt. Curly never came home, but he was always there. And he was waiting when Mary joined him nearly 50 years later. Her ashes lay at the foot of his empty grave in Emery and their daughter Sheila is buried a few yards away. Cancer took her at 53. Laverne lives in Idaho and Utah but returns to her Cummings and Huml relatives when she can.
In Belgium, at the American Cemetery, 5,329 white crosses mark the sacrifices of the men and women who gave their lives during WWII. There is a cross for Curly among them. He was a true American hero and Emery is his home.