Valley Pike: ‘Dutch’ Ebert: ‘First in war . . .?’

Posted: March 26, 2014

“Perhaps the greatest unsung success story of AAF (Army Air Forces) training was navigators. The Army graduated some 50,000 during the war. And many had never flown out of sight of land before leaving “Uncle Sugar” for a war zone. Yet the huge majority found their way across oceans and continents without getting lost or running out of fuel — a stirring tribute to the AAF’s educational establishments.”

— Spitfire Association

 

His full handle is Harry Windsor Ebert Jr., but pretty much his entire life he’s been known, simply, as “Dutch.”

Now the Harry he knows full well about; that was his dad’s name. Of the Windsor, he’s unsure. But the “Dutch” is inexplicable.

Yes, the name Ebert does boast Germanic origins; in fact, it is said to be derived from the Old German word Hildeberht, meaning “battle-glorious,” which in the context of this column is most fitting.

But the nickname, as “Dutch” told me last week, is usually pinned on a youngster with a distinct German accent, an obvious “Dutchman.” And, thus, not on a boy who grew up on the corner of Cork and Stewart streets, and was born directly across East Piccadilly from the future site of the George Washington Hotel.

That latter tidbit tells you something. The GW went up in 1924, so that means “Dutch” must be in his nineties. He is, as he’ll happily announce, precisely “963/4.” He’ll turn 97 on May 20.

What “Dutch” will also tell an interested listener, though he has no sure-fire way of verifying it, is that he believes he was the first Winchester boy to see actual combat in World War II, at least in the European Theater. Given that his first missions as a gunner/navigator aboard a B-24 predated Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, he may very well be right. But even if he’s not, that’s where our story begins.

A ’35 graduate of Handley, “Dutch” attended Randolph-Macon College in Ashland for three years before transferring to U.Va. to take business courses. He then worked for a year before deciding to enlist in the Army Air Forces. War, he believed, was imminent, and so he opted to join up early, in order to attend flight school.

War, in fact, did come soon enough. “Dutch” remembers marching to the mess hall during basic training in Montgomery, Ala., when he heard the news of Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“The only thing I thought about,” he says, “was that I wouldn’t be home for Christmas.”

After basic, “Dutch” opted to enroll in the first specialty school available, which turned out to be for prospective navigators. For “Dutch,” an excellent math student, it proved a fortuitous choice. He not only finished at the head of his class at Turner Field in Albany, Ga., but says he also helped two of his roommates successfully “navigate” the course work.

“Dutch’s” stellar work in the classroom earned for him an opportunity for assignment to a special task force of 21 B-24s, codenamed HALPRO and commanded by Col. Harry A. Halverson. Initially formed to attack Japan from airfields in China, the task force was redirected to the European Theater when Rangoon fell and the Burma Road was cut, making logistical support of the detachment in China next to impossible.

That suited “Dutch” fine, as he considered any and all strikes against Japan in mid-’42, but especially in the wake of the Doolittle Raid, to be “suicide missions.”

And so, in the spring of that year, he and his mates left MacDill Field near Tampa, bound first for Brazil and then for Khartoum in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan — where no official bases or ground crews awaited them.

Next week: “Dutch” and HALPRO see action, over the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania, and then in the Mediterranean.