Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bernard Gourlay

I’m trying to get myself back in the habit of writing regularly for non-work purposes, so I’m kicking off a new project with this post.  I have waded into the shallows[i] of genealogy far enough to have accumulated more than just dates and locations, but actual details of my ancestor’s lives. I’m going to try to spend the next month or two telling the stories of my grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents[ii].  

32 ancestors…some with rich and interesting histories, some just sparse shadows of lives. But they’re my personal history, and I want their stories to live on in some fashion. I’m starting with my paternal (biological) grandfather, Bernard Wilbur Gourlay, whose brief, bittersweet life is among the harder accounts to write and poses some of the most interesting unanswered questions.

dad young 1943 with
Bernard Gourlay
Bernard Gourlay (grandfather) with James (my father)

Bernard Wilbur Gourlay
Early Life
Bernard Gourlay was born in 1921 in Amsterdam, NY, the son of a factory worker and homemaker. His mother had been previously married with children, and was 13 years older than his father[iii]. Bernard had a younger sister, but it doesn’t appear that any of his step-siblings lived with them. Bernard’s family moved to Auburn, NY sometime between 1930 and 1940, where his father found work as a foreman in a rug mill.

In school, Bernard was a boy scout, and a tennis player of some local reknown. After graduating in 1939, he joined his father as a laborer in a carpet factory where he might have remained if the winds of war had not already begun to blow.  In 1941 he married Joan Clark, a girl from his graduating class. She called him Gooneybird; he called her Crack Pot. They had a son, James. By all accounts they were very happy for the briefest of moments.

Joan and Bernard 1939
graduationgourlay wedding
photograndma bower wedding
 “Bernie” and Joan as Graduates, Wedding photo, Wedding invitation

World War II
As the conflict intensified in 1943, Bernard was drafted into the Army. He moved with Joan and James to various training locations in Washington and elsewhere, before being sent overseas. Bernard, by then a SSgt in the Army Air Corps, was assigned to the 450th Bomber Group (Cottontails[iv]) operating out of Mandura, Italy. He was a ball turret gunner[v] on a B24 Liberator; an especially dangerous role in an occupation already fraught with risk. He had entered the war effort in a time and place where the life expectancy of bomber crews was tragically short. Men of the 450th would be relieved after flying their 50th mission. Set against the might of the German Luftwaffe and rain of AA flak, only a lucky few survived that long.

gourlay portrait with
family messagegourlay crew member card
Gourlay during
Going to War Portrait, Air Crew member card, B-24 Liberator with Crew (Bernard at front left center)

After a flight of B-24s from the 450th successfully bombed Porto San Stefano, one of its retreating planes was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. In its death spiral, it sheared the tail section of another B-24, designated “The Margie” by her crew. The Margie followed her fellow ship down, crashing directly into the sea.  Its cabin crew never had time to don parachutes and escape, let alone the ball turret gunner, locked in position on the belly of the aircraft. Bernard and Joan’s dreams died over a lonely stretch of sea in May, 1944. James was 2 years old.

Officially, Bernard was listed as missing until many months later. For his sacrifice, he was awarded a Purple Heart, and the Air Medal for valor. Joan remarried some time afterward; another Army man and a hero in his own right. My father, James, told me about Bernard, when I was 12 years old. Someday I hope to see in person the Tablet of the Missing, in the American Cemetery in Florence, Italy, on which his name is inscribed.

The Aviator.

purple heart
Purple Heart


[i] By which I mean the shallow, beginner level of genealogy, not that my gene pool is shallow.
[ii] I’m not ready to tackle the emotional mindfield of describing my parent’s lives, and I’ve already alluded to a lot of my own history in previous posts. So those two generations won’t be included.
[iii] She was 43 when she had Bernard, and at one time there was a rumor that he had been adopted.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of anyone living who can confirm this, and I have not been able to find any records to confirm or deny this. If he was adopted, then I may lose that entire side of my family’s history.
[iv] So named for the white tail sections on their B-24 Liberators. The Cottontails, as part of the 15th Air Force, were responsible for the raids and crippling of the Ploesti oil refinery complex, which dramatically impacted the German ability to wage war after mid 1944.
[v] The ball turret was gun turret located on the belly of the aircraft. Its gunners had to be lowered into place, and could not easily escape their turret in emergencies.  It was especially vulnerable to fighter attacks and ground fire. Ball turret gunners had among the lowest life expectancies of bomber crews.  

Monday, April 6, 2015

Incidental Coast

Coastal Prairie Sunrise
Coastal Prairie Sunrise

Like a lot of my hobbies these days (including this blog if that wasn't painfully clear), my hiking and photography time has been fairly limited. When I've gotten out and about , it's usually is a matter of leftover minutes or hours tacked on to trips with a more Adult Purpose(tm).  

At the end of March I had a water quality event down on the Gulf Coast, directly adjacent and including part of Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. Given that it was a beautiful day, spring migration had just begun, and I was required to have my camera for the work event anyway, I indulged in a little incidental coastal photography.

Brazoria Colors
Colors of Brazoria NWR

Marlin Marina
Repurposed Boat, Marlin Marina, Demi-John

The Texas Gulf Coast is an odd place. While there are some places like Galveston that are the epitome of tourist destinations, most of the upper Texas coast is a mishmash of impenetrable coastal wetlands, small run down towns, and vast petrochemical complexes.

Bottle in the Sand
Bottle in the Sand

Bastrop Bayou at Demi-John
Bastrop Bayou

Old BOat
This Way

 The clanging juxtaposition of vast stretches of flat open land and remnants of past and current oil production scattered across the landscape always give it sort of a post-apocalyptic feel to me. Add to it the fact that you can drive on most beaches here, and it just begs for exploration. Even with the small amount of time I had that day, I managed to jaunt about and get a couple pictures during my efforts.  There's no real theme, just a couple shots from the day. Sorry about all the birds, as usual.


Mallard touch downWhite-tailed Hawk (juvenile)
Mallard coming in for landing; White-tailed Hawk (juvenile)


Indian Paintbrush
Indian Paintbrush

White=faced IbisNorthern Shoveler (drake)
White-faced Ibis, Northern Shoveler

I didn't do it.
I didn't do it.