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Local author holds book-signing in national museum

Terry Irwin sits in the seat of a radio operator on the restored B-17 “City of Savannah,” holding a copy of his 2022 book, “Sgt. Dinwiddie’s War.” Submitted photo

Terry Irwin enjoyed talking with his father-in-law, Don Dinwiddie, about his World War II experiences until Dinwiddie’s death in 2006. Irwin did additional research and collected all the information he could about those experiences.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Irwin into quarantine, he used that spare time to compile his research into a book that was intended for family members. He had 17 copies made at Staples and handed them out. A friend of Irwin’s read a copy and told him he needed to get it published, which he did in 2022.

What started out as a family project has turned into an opportunity for this Gordonville author to do a book-signing and give a talk at a national museum.

Irwin was invited to speak about his book, “Sgt. Dinwiddie’s War,” at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Savannah, GA, on Jan. 31.

Irwin’s talk came almost exactly 80 years to the day that Dinwiddie and his B-17 crew suffered through a belly landing in a muddy Belgian farm field on Jan. 29, 1944.

The museum wanted the talk to be on the 80th anniversary, but Jan. 29 came on a Monday this year, and the museum is closed Mondays.

Instead of moving the talk to Tuesday, the museum opted to combine Irwin’s talk and book-signing with a presentation that was already scheduled for Wednesday. That talk was about the perfectly restored B-17 recently put on display in the museum.

Irwin said he didn’t know what to expect when he traveled to Savannah; he had no idea how many would come to hear him. “I thought, I’d be happy if there’s 10. There were over 125. It was a pretty big deal. It was neat.”

Two of the attendees were daughters of Sgt. Dinwiddie: Donna Irwin (Terry’s wife) and her sister, Kim Gillam, who is married to Dr. Jack Gillam. The Gillams live in Salina, KS.

Following his hour-long talk, Irwin held a book-signing. “I signed a lot of books,” he recalled. He was told the museum bookstore had 60 copies of his book, and when he was done, only six copies remained. “I was shocked,” Irwin said.

After the book-signing there was a luncheon. Then came the afternoon talk in which the museum discussed the history and restoration of its B-17. Everything on the plane is like new and is in working order.

This particular B-17 never saw combat. It rolled out of the Boeing factory after V-E Day and was parked until 1947, when it was flown to North Dakota to serve as a war memorial outside of a high school. In 1951, it began a 20-year career as a photo-mapper in Canada. It was then returned to North Dakota, where it was used to drop borate on forest fires.

In 1981 it was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum, where it sat in long-term storage in an open-sided hangar. Cocooned in bubble wrap, it became home to thousands of birds. In 2009, the Smithsonian donated the B-17 to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, where more than 140 volunteers spent over 60,000 hours restoring it.

After listening to the talk on the B-17, the Irwins and Gillams toured the museum. The general public is not allowed inside the B-17, but an exception was made for the Irwins and Gillams.

“We spent three days at the museum,” Irwin said.

The museum has invited Irwin to come back sometime to talk about flight training in World War II, another topic he has researched.

“Sgt. Dinwiddie’s War” tells the story of Irwin’s father-in-law, who was working for the Remington Arms Co. in Kansas City when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His job would have kept him safe from military duty, but like many young men at the time, he enlisted, joining the Army Air Corps.

Dinwiddie became a radio operator on a B-17 conducting bombing raids over Germany.

On that fateful January mission to Frankfurt, the plane developed engine trouble in one of its four engines. When another engine was hit by enemy fire, they turned around and headed back to England.

Another engine was put out of commission by enemy fire, leaving just two working engines — and one was at half power. The B-17 could no longer stay in the air; they were forced to make a gear-up belly landing in a muddy field in Belgium. (Putting the gear down might have caused the plane to flip when it hit the mud.)

All but one crew member survived that forced landing. The navigator and bombardier were seriously injured and were taken to a hospital, where they were quickly captured by German soldiers. The copilot evaded capture and, with help from the French underground, made it safely to Gibralter and back to England.

Dinwiddie and the pilot were hidden from the Germans by the Belgians until the middle of May. Then, as they made their way through France to Gibralter, they were captured at a road block and sent to German prisoner of war camps in Poland (officers went to one camp; enlisted men went to another).

In February 1945, Russian troops advanced on the prison camps and the German guards marched the prisoners west back into Germany. This became known as a death march.

One day in May, the prisoners awoke to find their German guards had left during the night. They continued marching westward until they met up with British troops and were liberated. A few days later, Germany surrendered.

If you would like to read the entire exciting story, the book is available locally at Barnes and Noble, or you can purchase signed copies by emailing sgtdinwiddieswar@yahoo.com.

Gregory Dullum has worked for The Cash-Book Journal for more than 25 years. Prior to becoming the editor in May 2017, he was production manager, circulation manager and reporter. Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 1988, he was editor of the Saint Louis Park Sailor, a weekly community newspaper in suburban Minneapolis, MN. A native of Minnesota, he returned there after graduating with distinction in 1978 from Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA, with a degree in mass communications. His wife, Marie, whom he met in college, is a native of Zalma, a small town in southeast Missouri. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Gregory may be reached at cashbook@mvp.net.

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