On July 3, exactly 74 years to the day after Clarence Dragoo of Sandyville earned his navigator's wings, the Ripley Lanes Bridge carrying West Virginia 21 over Sycamore Creek was renamed the U.S. Army Second Lieutenant Clarence Dragoo Memorial Bridge.
The renaming took place during a ceremony Tuesday at the Jackson County Courthouse in conjunction with Ripley's Fourth of July Celebration.
The bridge renaming was ordered by West Virginia House of Delegates Concurrent Resolution 33, submitted by Delegates Steve Westfall, Rick Atkinson, and others.
Dragoo was a navigator on a B-24 Liberator that crashed in the Adriatic Sea in 1945. The wreckage and Dragoo's remains were recovered in 2015 and he was returned to Jackson County and laid to rest last year.
Cycrecia VanFosson is Dragoo's grandniece. She said Tuesday's bridge ceremony and her great uncle's return to Jackson County were a long time coming.
"The community support has been amazing. Mayor Carolyn Rader, the minute we first spoke, she's rallied with me every day we've worked together. It's just a really surreal moment for our family," she said.
VanFosson said her great uncle's story should serve as an inspiration for anyone who has a family member who went missing in action.
"I want people to never give up. There's always hope," she said.
County Commissioner and member of American Legion Post 107 Mike Randolph said he appreciated Jackson County's show of patriotism during the event.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for local people to recognize Lt. Dragoo and his sacrifice. He made a great sacrifice and he was gone from home for a long, long time," Randolph said.
Randolph said there are 167 West Virginia Veterans missing in action from the Korean War.
"Hopefully sometime in the future we can get those guys home as well," he said.
Westfall said Tuesday was an appropriate day to conduct the ceremony.
"The day before the Fourth of July, to have a celebration like this is humbling. It's amazing after that many years that the recovery team had a Jackson county connection," he said.
Mayor Carolyn Rader said she was honored to participate.
"It's a very special day. We were very pleased and honored to be a part of this," she said.
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito attended the bridge dedication ceremony. She said it was an honor to be there with the family of Dragoo and the Ripley community.
"He made the ultimate sacrifice defending our country," she said. "The legacy of his family lives on and that's really wonderful."
Capito said countless men and women of Dragoo's generation – and generations to follow – had a sense of patriotism and a devotion to duty and country, as well as a sense of obligation to make the country and the world a better place for future generations.
"To another generation, maybe Lt. Dragoo sounds like this superhuman person. You know, he was just a regular guy. He was a brother, a son," she said. "When his nation needed him, he answered the call. He volunteered. And he lost his life fighting for something bigger than us. It took him 72 years to come home, but his family never forgot and his community never forgot."
Dragoo was born Dec. 30, 1923, and graduated from Gilmore High School in 1941.
He attended Capital City Commercial College in Charleston, where he was president of the Pi Rho Zeta fraternity and was involved in the drama club. He also performed on the WCHS radio station and worked as a bookkeeper.
In January 1943, Dragoo was inducted into the U.S. Army in Huntington and entered active duty six days later at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He earned his navigator's wings and commission on July 3, 1944, at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana.
In October 1944, Dragoo left for overseas duty and arrived in Italy in November.
As a 21-year-old navigator on a B-24 Liberator, Dragoo experienced a "baptism by fire" early in his military career and lived to tell about it.
On one mission, while flying over a railway pass, the plane ahead of Dragoo's bomber was hit by flak and exploded in mid-air, spraying Dragoo's plane with hundreds of gallons of highly flammable gas.
"Dragoo's Liberator became a flying torch, capable of igniting at the slightest spark," according to the House Resolution.
With the windows blackened and the rudders damaged, flying blind with instruments only, the crew limped the plane back to base.
In February 1945, a change in crew reassigned Dragoo as navigator to a B-24 Liberator manned by a crew known as "Hanson Crew."
The B-24 was part of the 716th Bomber Squadron, 449th Bombardment Group. The Liberator departed Grottaglie Army Base in Italy on a bombing run to destroy the Isarco-Albes railroad bridge in northern Italy.
The destruction of the bridge was a key objective in the 15th Air Force's effort to destroy railroad choke points and railroad cars.
The bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire but rallied with the other plans to reform and head back to base.
On the return flight, with the engines damaged, the Liberator began to lose altitude and crashed, probably into the Gulf of Venice, according to historical accounts. Witnesses reported that just before it crashed, the bomber was skimming mountaintops.
The pilot, First Lieutenant Howard Hanson, radioed that one the engines had restarted, but witnesses said the craft continued to fall until it could no longer be seen by others in the formation.
Dragoo's death date was reported as Feb. 28, 1945.
On March 16, Dragoo's mother, Stella Dragoo, received a Western Union telegram officially informing her that her son had been listed as missing in action over Italy.
In the years that followed, life continued for the Dragoo family, but it was never the same.
"Mother Stella's son would never return to West Virginia. Lieutenant Dragoo's siblings, including older sister, Dorothy, younger brother Melvin, and younger sister Bernice, would never again see their brother," the House Resolution states.
"The handsome young navigator, who was once treasurer of his FFA chapter, editor of his high school yearbook, and drama club performer, would never get the chance to share his talents with the world," Delegates wrote in the House resolution.
"Never again would Lieutenant Dragoo pick up his guitar and sing at the Cooper Fork Community Church and never again fill the airwaves at WCHS radio with his voice," the resolution states.
In the months following the crash, the remains of four of Dragoo's crewmates washed ashore in various places along the shores of Italy. Later, the remains of a fifth member of the crew were found by Germans and returned to American military authorities in Europe.
Both during and after World War II, the American Graves Registration Service searched for and recovered fallen Americans in the Mediterranean area. In 1948, the group convened in Rome to discuss the recovery of the six remaining crew members. Based on the area and known information at the time, the group deemed the aircraft and missing crew members non-recoverable.
The plane was found in the 1970s off the coast of Grado, Italy, in 30 meters of water and was positively identified in 2013. In 2015, a team of divers worked to recover the wreckage, which contained human remains. It took 220 dives to complete the mission.
A member of the dive team, Nate Johnson, had a Jackson County Connection. His mother, Terry, grew up in Ravenswood, where she followed the story because of her son's involvement and shared pictures of the recovery mission with family.
During the summer of 2017, after maternal family members submitted DNA samples, the remains of Dragoo were positively identified.
In October of last year, Dragoo was brought home to Jackson County after 72 years and laid to rest. The streets of Ripley were lined with people as his funeral procession passed by, Rader said.