Thanks to researcher David Huntley, local sisters receive heroic uncle’s diary who perished in World War II.
Photography by Glenn Triest
Sisters Janice Morgan of Birmingham and Andrea Kempner Blake of Oak Park believe in miracles and the kindness of strangers.
Blake received a mysterious phone call in March from a man writing a book about the crew of the Tomahawk Warrior. The plane crashed in a field about 20 miles outside of London on Aug. 12, 1944, during World War II. Among the crew members who died in the crash was the then 25-year-old Saul Kempner, Janice and Andrea’s uncle and a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
They never met their uncle, who was the twin brother of their father Irving and a decorated soldier who had received a Purple Heart and Air Medal for his service. And unbeknownst to the sisters, their Uncle Saul kept a personal, detailed diary, chronicling the many missions he and his crewmates made with the 600th Bomb Squadron, 398th Group of the 8th U.S. Army Air Force.
The sisters’ grandfather Samuel Kempner and father Irving wrote letters to Air Force officials in the desperate attempts to retrieve the lost diary.
David Huntley, who was then an 8-year-old boy living outside of London in the Village of Loudwater, remembers running through the fields to see that fatal crash, about a mile and a half away. Huntley, now in his 80s, procured Saul Kempner’s diary as part of the research he has conducted for the last two-and-a-half years to write the book The Tomahawk Warrior: The Final Honor.
Huntley, who lives in Dallas, recently met with Morgan and Blake at the Birmingham Museum to return to them the 75-year-old piece of Kempner family history.
“It’s a miraculous story,” said 66-year-old Blake. “The diary is such a personal, personal item; it’s almost beyond words.”
Blake said she was suspicious of Huntley’s calls but when she received a text from him asking if she was related to Saul Kempner, that’s when she finally picked up the phone.
“This whole experience has changed our family,” she said. “Now it’s a living miracle.”
Huntley, who has already published a fictional book set in World War II, is continuing to do research for his second book. The pilot of the Tomahawk Warrior, Lt. Charles Searl, according to Huntley’s research, did everything he could to avoid hitting the village of Penn, near where Huntley and his family lived in Loudwater.
Huntley said the memory of the crash has remained with him his whole life. He also has maintained a deep sense of gratitude for the crew who avoided crashing into village residents.
“I felt I had a need to make contact with the Kempner family,” Huntley said, who has lived in America for about 40 years.
Saul Kempner’s diary had been in the possession of former serviceman Ed Ginther, who, during World War II, was responsible for cleaning out the lockers of the soldiers who were casualties of war. According to Ginther’s son, Martin, of Beverly, Ohio, Ed found the diary in a wastebasket, retrieved it and kept it all this time.
“He never threw away anything,” said Martin, who also attended the diary exchange in Birmingham. “He had files on just about anything. He had files on me.”
It was Ed Ginther’s wish before he passed away last year that the diary be returned to the Kempner family. When Martin gave the diary to Huntley, Huntley did his due diligence in locating the Kempner descendants. He consulted the 1940 census records, contacted synagogues in Michigan and relied on the help of local Michigan archivists.
“It’s a crowning achievement,” Huntley said about returning the diary to the Kempners.
He added that the Tomahawk Warrior crew will be honored on Remembrance Day on Nov. 10 this year in Buckinghamshire, England, with the presentation of a memorial scroll to the crew’s relatives. He also is working to have a memorial plaque placed in the field where the plane went down. The geographical depression of that crash remains to this day, as evidenced by a photograph Huntley has of the site.
“When the relatives of the deceased crew receive an award or recognition on behalf of their loves ones, it will close a chapter of my life for which I will be forever grateful to have been a significant part of in bringing these families together,” Huntley wrote as part of his book synopsis.
Blake and Morgan said that after they have had adequate time with their uncle’s diary, they may look at an appropriate archive or museum to which they’ll donate it. Morgan, 59, said that having the diary brings her uncle back to life.
“It is wonderful and transforming to have the diary in our possession because we didn’t get a lot of stories about my uncle,” Morgan said. “We didn’t have a good idea of who he was. He didn’t stay in my thoughts as much as if I had known him.
“His diary gives him a voice and personifies him. His writing is kind of clever and informal, and I hear pieces of my father in what he says. It brings back the fact that my father had a twin brother. My uncle is more real.”