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In a hospital room, a chance meeting of two WWII fliers

Kenneth Magner was a lead pilot on B-26 "Marauder" bombers in Europe during World War II. James Ashley was the lead navigator in another Europe-based B-26 squadron. On December 23, 1944, both squadrons engaged in a bombing raid on the same railroad viaduct in Ahrweiler, Germany. As Ashley's squadron was returning to base, 60 enemy fighter planes attacked Magner's squadron, destroying all but two of the 18 bombers. Magner's plane was one of the two that made it back.

Almost 60 years later, the two men met for the first time—at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Magner, one of DHMC's 87 "patient sitters," had been assigned to sit with Ashley in his hospital room while Ashley was recuperating. Sitters spend time with hospitalized patients who need to be under constant observation. As Magner and Ashley chatted, the two men discovered that they had been in the same terrible place all those years ago, just minutes apart.

Kenneth Magner is employed as one of DHMC's 87 "patient sitters." He recently discovered that he had something quite amazing in common with a patient in his care—the two, both WWII aviators, had been involved in the same bombing run over Europe nearly 60 years ago. They had never met until they crossed paths at DHMC, however.
Photo: Mark Austin-Washburn

Then Mark Natola, DHMC's chief EEG technologist and a WWII buff, got wind of the story. Avocationally, Natola is a documentary filmmaker who specializes in World War II subjects, especially the aircraft of the era. His work has been featured on television, including on the A&E and History Channels. "I had a chance conversation with Ken in the EEG lab," explains Natola. "He was telling me about his experience."

When Natola asked Magner if he would be willing to talk about his experiences on camera, Magner said yes and mentioned that Ashley might be interested in participating, too. Before long, Natola was interviewing and filming them as they recalled their days flying B-26s in the 9th Air Force. The interviews will be part of a bigger project that will also include the recollections of other war veterans.

Missions: Magner flew 35 combat missions from England and France against noncivilian targets in Germany —including rail yards, military bases, and bridges—as well as tactical missions in support of ground troops.

Although his plane was damaged in 31 of those missions, he says December 23, 1944, was one of his most unforgettable days of the whole war. That engagement earned his squadron a Presidential Unit Citation, which noted that "men who were wounded remained at their posts and continued firing, and aircraft shot out of the sky went down with their guns still blazing at the enemy."

The enemy fighters "caught us off guard," says Magner of that day. "We were looking into the sun and didn't see them until they hit us."

That raid stands out among the 40 missions that Ashley flew, too. From his navigator's seat in the transparent nosecone of his B-26, he wasn't quite able to see the violent aerial battle Magner and his colleagues were engaged in, but he could hear the radio chatter describing the firefight. There was nothing his squadron could do to help, however.

Magner continues (with his wife, Jeanadele, who is also a patient sitter) to enjoy his job at DHMC, although he hasn't met anyone else from his past. Yet.

Laura Stephenson Carter

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