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Long lost diary provides connection to 90 BG

F.E. Warren AFB -- While looking for information on the 90th Bombardment Group for their reunion, a 90th Space Wing historian, found what he called The Holy Grail.

"As soon as I opened up the folder I realized I'd discovered a treasure," said Staff Sgt. Michael Abrams, 90 SW assistant historian. "The folder itself has a tab on it that's simply marked 'Ben Sheats, Col.' There was no inkling looking on the outside of the folder what was inside."

What he found in a dusty folder, on an old shelf in his office, was a decades-old copy of a diary kept by a servicemember from the 90 BG during World War II.

"It was one of those - I guess what you might call a serendipitous moments that a historian has," said Sergeant Abrams.

The diary, with daily entries from Nov. 18, 1943, to March 21, 1944, was kept by Tech. Sgt. Jack Sheats, a flight engineer and aerial gunner for the 319th Bombardment Squadron, 90 BG. It starts while Sergeant Sheats was in Hamilton Field near San Francisco, and ends in the South Pacific, two days before he was killed in action.

What's truly fascinating about this diary, said Sergeant Abrams, is that there haven't been many books or movies about what it was like to be an enlisted flyer in a combat unit in the South Pacific.

"What I think the true value of this is it gives us an insight into what it was like for a G.I. Joe air crewman in '43 and '44," said Sergeant Abrams.

A diary of its kind was unauthorized to keep during World War II. Nonetheless, Sergeant Sheats wrote an entry every day. Not only do we know about the combat missions he flew, we also know what he did for Christmas in 1943, said Sergeant Abrams.

According to his diary, Sergeant Sheats flew 20 combat missions in the four months he was in the South Pacific. He has fairly lengthy descriptions of each one of those missions.

On Jan. 7, 1943, Sergeant Sheats began his diary entry, "This morning we got up at 6 a.m. had breakfast, went out to the plane "Louisiana Lullaby." We started the engines at 8:40. This is our first mission over enemy soil." He continued to write about black puffs of smoke bursting under the right wing, but not close enough to hurt.

The crew passed over their target at 11:26 a.m., dropped one bomb and dumped the rest in the water. "It all happened in a few minutes but it seemed like hours," Sergeant Sheats wrote.

Their schedule is fascinating, said Tech. Sgt. Michael Byrd, 90 SW historian.

"One day they'd go on a bombing run, and he'd clearly tell you how it was, and the next day he'd go to a movie," said Sergeant Byrd.

In a post script written on July 3, 1948, by a woman named Mammie (Sheats) Stephens, we find out what happened to Sergeant Sheats.
"Dear Diary, This is the day after his funeral. He was killed the 23rd of March, two days after his last remarks here. His plane crashed into the side of a mountain and the entire crew was killed instantly." She wrote about the funeral services and concluded with, "There seems to be so much to write here yet so little I can say. But it seems after the long weary years the months of being moved around he is at last home at rest. And may the kind God above who understands these things, let him rest in peace."

Sergeant Sheats and the rest of the crew volunteered for a recon mission over Japanese lines in order to get their final flying hours requirement to go on leave back to the United States. After completing their mission and while returning back to base, their plane crashed into a mountain near Nadzab, New Guinea.

But how did his diary, written more than 60 years ago, end up in a folder at Warren? At the time of his death, Sergeant Sheats had a 10-year-old brother named Benton. As the years past, Benton became Col. Benton Sheats. On Sept. 13, 1978, he was named the commander of the 90th Security Police Group here. Unaware of his family connection to the 90 BG, Colonel Sheats was startled during a trip to the base museum. He saw a familiar patch of the skull and cross bombs that his older brother wore.

In 1980, the base historian and the commander of the 90th Combat Support Group Squadron were given Sergeant Sheats' diary, presumably by his brother. They typed each entry unedited and prepared a file as a connection to the 90th of World War II. Also in the file are photos of all the crewmembers who were killed along with Sergeant Sheats, their addresses and next of kin information. The file was kept for 26 years until rediscovered in July by Sergeant Abrams.

Immediately after realizing what he'd found, Sergeant Abrams took the diary to the museum to be preserved by scanning it into a computer.

"For me, it's part of our legacy of this wing," said Sergeant Byrd.

The historians stressed the importance of keeping treasures like Sergeant Sheats' diary.

"If they (your parents or grandparents) fought in World War II there's no harm in asking, 'What happened? What did you do? Did you keep anything?'" said Sergeant Abrams.

If you do find anything while going through their old things, don't lose it, said Sergeant Byrd. If you're not interested in keeping it, contact an Air Force or an Army museum to see if they are able to preserve it.

Sergeant Sheats' diary, while unauthorized at the time, not only provides a connection to the 90th of the past, but also a peak into what life was like, on a day to day basis, for an enlisted gunner during World War II.

"For historians, this is as good as it gets," said Sergeant Abrams. "It's the past leaping out."