"Captain Darwin V. Brake, Fighter Pilot"
Copyright © 2022 Hugh T. Harrington
It was midnight, April 11, 1944. 24 year old Captain Darwin V. Brake Jr. of Milledgeville opened the canopy of his airplane and leaped out into the black sky.
Darwin Brake graduated from Georgia Military College in 1938. A good dancer, he played the clarinet and saxophone. He also had a very used Model T Ford Touring Car. He was very popular. Some might even say he was a lady’s man.
After receiving his commission he was assigned to the tank corps. However, the tankcorps was not to his liking. He wanted to fly. He volunteered for a transfer to the Air Corps. Soon, he married Ivelyn Rogers and they had a son, Harry.
After learning to fly he received his final training (Feb 1943) in the US at Kissimmee, Florida in the difficult art of flying a night fighter. He was assigned to the 416 th Night Fighter Squadron.
The squadron departed from New York on the Queen Elizabeth May 5, 1943. After a high speed dash across the U-boat infested North Atlantic the Queen Elizabeth, and its much relieved passengers, arrived in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland May 11 th . From there the men took a train to Coventry, England. Soon the pilots were being familiarized with their new aircraft, the Bristol Beaufighter.
The Beaufighter, or Beau as it was commonly called, was a British designed and built heavy, fast, heavily armed long range two engine fighter plane designed specifically for night fighting. It carried a pilot and a radar operator/gunner.
In early August 1943 the 416 th Night Fighter Squadron, and Darwin Brake, left England for Africa. It took several days to reach Africa, stopping along the way at Gibralter, Port Leyota, Fez, Oran and eventually Algiers. By early October they were operating out of the US base at Pomiglano, near Naples, Italy.
Darwin Brake was teamed up with his radar operator, Alfred Gander, from Virginia. Together they were an effective team having shot down a German Heinkel HE 111, a medium bomber.
Nightfighting was a very nerve-wracking and dangerous business. The airplanes flew without lights at speeds up to 300 mph, in the dark, being guided to the enemy by rudimentary radar. At the same time the enemy was being guided to them. Often survival depended upon who saw their enemy first.
On the night of April 11, 1944, Darwin Brake and Alfred Gander, were patrolling near the Anzio Beachhead. Visibility was poor. It was cloudy with 10/10 th strato-cumulus cloud cover with the base of the clouds between 1500’ and 8000’. They were at 5,000 feet when their aircraft was struck by incoming gunfire. At five minutes to midnight they radioed the controller at Chaprone, Italy advising that their aircraft was badly shot up and on fire. Darwin Brake fought for control reporting 15 minutes later that the right engine was out and he couldn’t feather (turn the propeller so the edge faced forward so it would not spin) the propeller. It was a hopeless fight. The aircraft could not remain in the air.
At 15 minutes after midnight Darwin and Alfred Gander sent a Mayday call, gave their position coordinates and abandoned their doomed Beaufighter to the comparative safety of their parachutes.
These two brave young men, who volunteered for the hazardous duty in the skies, vanished along with their aircraft. A search over the next several days turned up nothing. There was no sign of the men nor their aircraft. In the nearly 70 years since their disappearance notrace of the aircraft or the remains of the crew have been found.
There is a memorial marker for Darwin V. Brake, Jr. in Memory Hill Cemetery. Every day visitors pass it by without a second thought for what it represents. And, what it represents is important. It is a reminder of the life of a young husband, father and patriotic man who, with everything to lose, answered his country’s call.
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