Shortly before midnight on July 18, 1943, two men lifted off in their B-17’s from Carney Airfield on the island of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific for a night bombing mission against the Japanese. Lieutenant Rex Eckles, 24-years-old, was flying B-17E “Tokyo Taxi” and Captain Anthony Dean Lucas, 22, was piloting the B-17 “Li'l Nell” They had become best friends during their months on Guadalcanal, first as co-pilots flying side by side and then as pilots of their own planes. As they took off that night with seven other planes to bomb the Kahili Airfield on the island of Bougainville, they had no way of knowing that one of them would never come back.
As they arrived over Bougainville, they fell into line for their bombing run. B-17E "Tokyo Taxi" took the first position with B-17E Li'l Nell right behind him. But as they neared Kahili, twenty-one spotlights suddenly flashed on below them and converged on Lt. Eckles’ plane, illuminating it against the night sky. Tokyo Taxi was held in the lights for what probably seemed like an eternity before they shifted back to illuminate the "L’il Nell". Capt. Lucas then saw the tracers from a night fighter above him streaking toward Lt. Eckles’ plane. The explosion that engulfed the plane as they hit was devastating. Capt. Lucas knew instantly there was no chance that anyone survived. Ten lives, including his best friend’s, were extinguished in that ball of flames.
I know this story because Captain (later Colonel) Lucas was my father. I know that he continued in over the target that night and dropped his bombs, completing his mission objective, before he started to dodge like hell to avoid being shot down himself. I can’t begin to imagine, though, how terrified he must have been, or how painful it was for him to fly back from that mission, land his plane, and go on with his daily life on Guadalcanal knowing his friend’s life had been snuffed out in an instant.
My father, like many World War II veterans, didn’t talk much about the war but a couple of things told me how much his best friend’s death affected him. First, my oldest brother is named Rex. When our father came home from the war, he told our mother that would be their first son’s name. My mother sincerely hoped he was kidding because they also happened to own a dog named Rex. But when their first child was born just over a year later he had not wavered, and so they had both a dog and a son named Rex.
The other indication was that I saw my father cry only twice in my life and one of those times was when he told me about that night. I was a teenager when he told me sometime around 1980, almost forty years after it happened, and it still affected him that deeply. I doubt my father thought the story made much of an impact on me but it did. I always remembered it and wondered about Rex Eckles. If my dad, the most honest, courageous and ethical man I knew, considered him his best friend, then Rex Eckles had to have been a pretty special person.
I always wondered about his family. Who had he left behind? How much did they miss him? Did they know what happened to him? My dad’s younger brother also died later in the war, killed by a sniper on Okinawa, but we never knew any details about what happened to him or if he suffered. Did Rex’s family have unanswered questions like we did? My father also had photos of Rex which were likely the last ones ever taken of him and I thought his family should have them.
Over the years, I looked for his family. Once the internet became widespread, I searched his name a few times trying to find connections but came up with nothing. I even wrote to the Department of the Army once and in response received records including his parents’ names but those also led to dead ends since by then they had both passed on. I knew he was from Santa Barbara, California but not much else. In 2004 my father passed away and it felt for awhile like the story ended there too.
But the story did eventually continue. Early in 2009, my brother Rex and I planned to join a tour group to Guadalcanal to see for ourselves where our father spent those eleven months of his life. We were both pretty excited about the trip for months beforehand and, unbeknownst to each other, we both got to thinking again about Rex Eckles. My brother tried another internet search and this time learned that a monument had recently been erected at the Santa Barbara Airport in honor of their local veterans who died in wars, one of them being Rex Eckles. Thinking the historian working on the project would surely have found Rex’s family, my brother contacted her. They exchanged e-mails but what he learned was that she had found no family of his either. He forwarded the e-mails to me and we both thought we’d hit another dead end.
A few weeks before our trip, I happened to look at those e-mails again and a comment jumped out at me that I had somehow missed before. The historian said that on the website for the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C., someone had signed the page for Rex Eckles as “John Eckles, nephew.” I have no idea how I missed that on the first reading but this time I was thrilled. Now I knew there was a nephew and his name was John! I immediately searched that name, starting in Santa Barbara. Nothing looked promising there but one person with that name had old addresses in Santa Barbara and newer ones in Florida. So next I searched Florida and one name stood out – John R. Eckles. I searched the name with that middle initial and learned it stood for Rex! Knowing Rex was not a common name, I hoped I’d finally found the relative I’d been searching for. It was late at night so I had to wait until the next morning to call and risk meeting with a huge disappointment. My biggest fear was that I would find Rex’s family and they wouldn't care. It had been a long time since his death and it was possible that no one was left who missed him or was interested in what happened to him.
Early the next day, nervous about the response I might get, I called. A woman answered the phone. I told her I was looking for John Eckles who might be the nephew of Rex Eckles who was killed in the South Pacific during World War II. I explained that my father had flown with him and I had information about him that I thought his family might like to have. The woman finally responded that yes, John was Rex’s nephew, but she thought the person I would probably want to talk to was Rex’s brother Howard, who she said was right there! She gave the phone to Howard and just like that, after more than 20 years of wondering, I was talking to Rex’s younger brother.
Howard immediately put to rest any worries I had about whether Rex’s family missed or cared about him. Thirteen months younger than Rex, Howard had adored him growing up. He still misses him so much that he has a small area in his home dedicated to photos and mementos of him. Rex’s death left a void in Howard’s life that has never been filled. My phone call came like a lightening bolt out of the blue but Howard and I had a wonderful talk. He told me that, just as I’d guessed, he never knew for sure what happened to Rex and had always worried that he might have survived the crash to be taken prisoner or suffer on the ground or at sea. I told him the story exactly as my father told me, and that my father was sure that hadn’t happened. Howard said later that he’d had to gather his composure before he could speak again after that. He has told me since that it’s brought him great peace to know for sure how his brother died. After talking for almost an hour, I promised to send Howard a package of the information I had about Rex, including my father’s journal and pictures of him, and we hung up.
The next morning I put the package together and wrote a letter to include telling Howard what a thrill and an honor it was to finally talk to him. As I dated the letter, I suddenly got a chill. I got out my dad’s journal, found the entry about that mission and realized I had finally found Howard on July 18, 2009, the sixty-sixth anniversary of his brother’s last mission!
Howard and I talked again after he got the package, which he said he spent a full day poring over. When my brother Rex came to stay at my house before our trip, he also talked to Howard. The connection we all felt quickly grew and we made plans to meet in person when Rex and I got back from Guadalcanal. So soon after our trip, Howard flew from Florida to my home in California and we had a wonderful time together, sharing photos and stories. We got to see pictures of Rex as a boy and Howard found another photo him in our dad’s album that we hadn’t realized was Rex. Howard now has more photos to add to his memorial to his brother, along with new mementos – pieces of the airstrip at Carney Field. Abandoned and surrounded by jungle, the original crushed-corral runway still exists and my brother and I got to stand on it and imagine the roar of B-17 engines as those young men took off into the night. Knowing we were going to meet Howard when we returned, we dug up a few small chunks and brought them home to him.
After all those years of feeling that we needed to preserve Rex’s memory because we didn’t know if anyone else was, we now happily share those memories with his real family. Howard’s three children have also been thrilled to learn so much more about the uncle they never got to meet. My only regret is that we didn’t find Howard when my father was still alive. I’m sure they would have had a very emotional meeting that would have meant an incredible amount to both of them. But maybe it happened just as it should have. Maybe the timing was perfect, because I’m sure Rex Eckles and our dad are reunited in heaven, flying side by side again in a B-17, and are enjoying the heck out of looking down on their two families who have finally, after all these years, given their story a happy ending.