For more than half a century, Ken Underwood II tried to find out what type of man his father was and what exactly happened to him.
“I always wondered what he sounded like, how he walked, how good of a golfer he was, things like that,” said Underwood, who was born two months after his 22-year-old pilot father was killed in a plane crash in England during World War II. “As I got older, I felt bad for him that he was killed so young, that he didn’t get to be a dad, that he didn’t get to do things in life or have a life. I always felt bad about that.”
“He gets very emotional when he thinks about it,” said Underwood’s daughter, Naomi, who was married on April 16, 2021, which would have been her grandfather’s 100th birthday. “It’s definitely something I find very heartfelt as well.”
Through several twists of fate, Underwood eventually found some of his father’s crew members and later visited the scene of the crash in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, about 25 miles west of Cambridge.
And now the Owings resident will share his remarkable story after recording a video that will be shown at the American Teacher’s Conference, which will be held July 19-23 at the World War II Memorial.
Underwood knew some details of his father’s life: He knew that Ken Underwood I was a P-38J pilot who was based in Wormingford and that he had flown 23 missions in just a few months, including the last four into Berlin.
But Underwood still didn’t know details of the accident or who his father was or what he was like, so he searched high and low for years for someone, anyone really, who really knew the dashing pilot.
And in 1985 he finally got a lead while attending a 55th Fighter Group reunion in Ohio.
“I was asking around if anyone knew my dad, but I was striking out,” he said. “It was very frustrating because I thought, ‘Boy, did anyone know him?’ because he wasn’t [in England] that long.”
He finally found Tech. Sgt. Dinald Maloney, who was his father’s chief mechanic, and he suggested Ken contact Bert Shepard.
Underwood knew Shepherd lived on the West coast and for two years he unsuccessfully pored over telephone books and other records searching for the one man who might give him the answers he wanted.
In early 1992, Underwood was at an air show in Chino, Cal. watching a P-38 buzz through the sky.
“I just said to no one in particular, ‘Oh man, now I know what my mother meant when she said there was no sound like a P-38,’” Underwood said as he stood in a throng of 10,000 people, “And the man next to me said, ‘Oh yeah, well you should hear it with the turbochargers.’ I happened to say that my dad flew them in the war and he said, ‘Yeah, so did I,’ and I turned to him and he had a name tag that said ‘Bert Shepard.’”
Shepard — who would later pitch one game for the Washington Senators in 1945 despite the fact his right leg had been amputated after his fighter plane was shot down in WWII — suggested Underwood write a note in the 94th Bomb Group newsletter, of which his father was a friend of a member, in order to get more details on the crash.
He later found out his father left the base at 1345 local time on May 18, 1944, for a local training mission shortly before he crashed his plane in a farm field about 60 miles from his base. An accident report stated the “aircraft was destroyed, and the pilot received fatal injuries.”
And two years later, Underwood opened a letter from Alberta, Canada’s Lethbridge University professor Brian Tyson that changed everything.
In the lengthy letter, Tyson wrote that he and his brother Pat “are absolutely certain that it [was Underwood’s crash] we rode out to on his bike on the May day in 1944.” Tyson went on to say that they “saw a twisted propeller lying in the first wheat field” and “later speculated whether he had come in too low and his propeller had struck the ground and been torn off.” Tyson went on to say that “I got to chatting with [the guard at the scene] and managed to surreptitiously collected one or two items as souvenirs” and added that they still had the rudder pedal from the plane.
“I was blown away,” Underwood said. “I couldn’t even finish it that day…”
Forty-eight years to the day of his father’s crash, Underwood visited the scene — the tree the plane hit still had char marks — and was presented with the rudder pedal. A few years later he returned and a piece of metal and a side of a boot were found.
“I was holding a piece of my father,” Ken said simply. “I kind of lost it. It was amazing.”
Still, questions persist as to exactly why Underwood crashed.
Queries about the cause of his father’s accident have yielded little.
A letter from the Department of the Air Force in Washington, D.C., dated April 21, 1993, stated that “the information you did not receive was properly withheld... Accident safety mishap reports are prepared solely for flight safety purposes and are used only to prevent future aircraft mishaps” and that “Investigators are told that their speculations and opinions will be reviewed only by those persons within the Air Force.” The letter went on to say that “disclosing such opinions and deliberations to those not directly involved in accident prevention would discourage candor, to the detriment of the flight safety program” and that “this privilege is not eroded by the passage of time.”
Underwood said there are some who say that his father liked “showing off” and in a letter to his wife Alice shortly before his crash he told her that “this combat is not getting me down, not getting me down, not getting me down...or is it?” Underwood said the P-38 was also “notorious for being hard to handle and the engine quitting, and I think that’s probably what happened. He knew what was going to happen so he put it down and he knew he was going to crash land because he kicked off the cockpit. I think and I hope he was killed instantly.”
But his father’s legacy lives on. Underwood’s 28-year-old son Harryson, an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter pilot based in North Carolina, wears his grandfather’s wings, which Harryson inscribed with the date his grandfather earned his wings, 8-30-43, for dress occasions. He also wore his grandfather’s ID bracelet — a precursor to dogtags — during his first flight in a military aircraft in a T-6 Texan 2.
“It’s definitely a really interesting story,” said Underwood’s daughter Naomi, a Northern High graduate who lives in Austin, Texas. “I’ve been hearing about it [since I was young] so it’s something I’ve grown up with my whole life, but it’s something my dad is proud of. It’s definitely an interesting story about our family legacy.”
But for now, Ken Underwood II has had some of his questions answered.
“I know he was real popular, he was good looking and he was an athlete,” Underwood said of his father, who is buried at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridge, England. “I feel at peace that I know who he was and what happened.”
“From the stories I’ve heard, he was just a really amazing guy that people really cared about and just very genuine,” Naomi said. “It sounds like he was a lot like my dad.”