The Bright Star Falls in the Night.

The bright life of Luther Burns Word, Jr. began on this day 98 years ago.  The only son of Luther B. and Zennie Wood. Luther was a rising star in his high school years at Dublin High School. He was a trumpet player in the school’s first marching band and a member of “Lads and Lassies Band ” and the Ed Powel Orchestra in Dublin.  He sang in his church, the First Methodist, and was often called upon to play taps at memorial services.

As a young man, Luther lived with his father, a lineman for Western Union Telegraph Company, and his mother, who kept the family households at 502 Lawrence Street and 314 West Madison Street.

Luther joined with twelve of his fellow young future pilots to form the only chapter of Junior Birdmen between Atlanta and Savannah.  In the mid 1930s, thousands of teenagers across the country fell in love with the idea of flying airplanes.  Luther was one of those young men.  At the age of 16, Luther acquired his pilot’s license.  He joined the senior pilots, Izzie Lease, Clafton Barron,  and Bud Barron in pushing for a local airport in Dublin.  The movement paid off in the years before World War II.  The first true airport was located in the forks of the Country Club Road and North Jefferson Street, just north of Dublin.

Luther’s flying skills were tested early in his career. With only eight hours of solo time, Word took off from the Dublin Airport.  When he reached an altitude of 150 to 200 feet, his engine died.
Word immediately scanned the skyline and spotted a nearby field.  The young pilot skillfully guided the plane downward for a near perfect landing.  Only his landing gear was damaged.

Luther Word, Jr. joined the Army Air Corps and was initially assigned in 1940 to the 17th Bomb Squadron based out of Barkesdale Air Field in Bossier, Louisiana.  Word was transferred to the Pacific Theater as a member of the 90th Bomber Squadron of the 3rd Bomber Group of the 5th Air Force.

On January 31, 1942, Word and the members of his crew were flying one of their first missions off the coast of Australia.  With Captain Jack Bleasdale of San Antonio, Texas in command, Word’s B-24 Liberator was attacked by three Japanese fighters 23,000 feet in the air.   Rear gunner Brown jumped into action when two crew members were severely wounded.  Brown removed his own oxygen mask and went to the wounded men and provided them with first aid and his own oxygen supply.      Brown was awarded the Silver Star for meritorious performance of his duty. Crewman Francis Garvey was also awarded a Silver Star by General George H. Brett for his heroic actions in a separate event in March.  

In late April 1942 during a recon mission near Buna , the crew faced a similar situation and managed to survive relatively unscathed from an attack by five enemy fighters, two of which were shot down. Corp. Henry R. Sheppard, of Gibson, Georgia, Corp.  Andrew J. Swain and Tech Sgt.
Luther Word kept the fighters at bay during the 35-minute attack, knocking two of them out of the sky. Word, Sheppard and Swain were also awarded the Silver Star by Gen. Brett in recognition of
their extraordinary heroism and bravery during the air battle in shooting down two Japanese planes.

As the day of May 25, 1942, Luther celebrated his 23rd birthday by flying yet another mission. This time the flight plan called for taking off from Mile Drome near Port Moresby to bomb the Lae Airfield and surrounding the airfield.  Bombs were dropped on Lae Airfield and installations at Lae. After the bomb run, the American flyers were intercepted and attacked from Japanese Zeros based
out of Tainan Kokutai near Lae.

Lt. Bennett G. Wilson, kept flying Word’s aircraft with the aid of Co-Pilot Lt. Luther P. Smith, Jr..  Word, serving as the bombardier, scrambled to aid the gunners after his bombs were dropped. Engineer Cpl. Leaburn D. Myers kept the plane in the air as long as possible while  Sgt. Lloyd Bailey, of the Royal Air Force, repeated may-day messages.  Turret Gunner, Sheppard, did all he could to fend of the attackers in the sky.

An RAAF Status Card records that Word’s B-25C plane was “last seen losing altitude in the vicinity of Lae Airdrome, and it is believed that both engines had been put out of action by Japanese gun fire. Believed to have crashed in the vicinity of the airdrome."

A diary recorded, “Lt. Wilson and Lt. Hesselbarth’s ships were shot down immediately. Capt Lowery’s and Lt. Rullison’s ships quickly followed. About 20 miles outside of Lae, Lt. Shearer was forced to crash land in the water. The three remaining ships were attacked continuously until they reached Salamaua where the flight lost them in the clouds.”

In a cruel bit of irony, the news of the awarding of five Silver Stars to the crew was published in Dublin Courier Herald in early June, several weeks after Word and his crew were lost at sea and listed as missing.   Several reports of the finding of Luther and the crew were found to be false.

In Dublin, Bob Hightower, Jim Laney, Trammell Keen, Cordie Adams, Earl Hilburn and the entire Elks and Lions Club radioed a telegram to Brisbane Australia.  The $11.86 message read, "Heartiest congratulations. Great work.  We are proud of you.  Give ‘em hell.  Citation received here by press and radio. Mother and dad are fine.

The search for the plane or any survivors continued for a long time.  Back at home, Mr. and Mrs. Word held out all hopes that their son was still alive, even if he was captured by the Japan. On the 2nd anniversary of his death, Luther’s parents donated $10.00 to the Red Cross in remembrance of their lost son.

After his death, the Army Air Corps awarded Luther Word and Oak Leaf Cluster in lieu of a second Air Medal for his actions during his last mission, for which Word was awarded his second
purple heart.

Luther Word and the other American members of his crew were officially declared dead by the military on December 4, 1945.  His name and the names of others are listed on the Walls of the Missing in the American Cemetery in Manilla, Philippines.

Luther’s parents placed a cenotaph marker to the memory of their beloved son next to their own graves in Dublin Memorial Gardens. (Photo by Loree and Billy Beacham.)

And when that sad day was done and the nights were all too long and dark,  Luther’s parents realized that their son was truly gone. They took great solace that was all was well and their little boywas safe in his savior’s arms and God was near.

On this Memorial Day weekend and on every day of every year, take a few moments to reflect upon the memory of our heroes like Luther Word and the sacrifices they made to keep us free.