Scope and Contents
The collection consists of letters, newspaper clippings, military reports and documents and original photographs, certificates, a small group of callings cards, and memorabilia. The collection focuses on the military career and death of a first generation American pilot, Jerry C. Debes, of Syrian heritage, in the European Theater of World War II and the subsequent efforts of his family to honor his memory.
The collection divides itself naturally into two main chronological parts containing several series in each. The first group (1942-1949) is focused on Debes’ military career and his family’s efforts to discover the circumstances of his death. It also includes materials concerning the Jerry Debes memorial Headstone placed by the American Battle Military Commission in the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold, France. It also includes personal and military–oriented photographs. Other memorabilia are the US Air Force‘s Air Medal and Purple Heart medal in their respective cases, two copies of Jerry Debes’ Purple heart certificates and Jerry Debes’ calling cards.
The second part is devoted to the efforts of Dr. Robert Debes to discover the exact circumstances of his brother’s death due to friendly fire in late 1980’s. It includes Dr. Debes’ successful project to have his brother’s name listed on the Roll of Honor at the American Memorial Chapel in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England as well as the donations of materials to the Lone Star flight Museum in Galveston, Texas, the Air Force Historical Research Agency at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and Rice University in Houston, Texas.
It is important to note that most of the documents are not original but photographed copies. Original materials are indicated in the Finding Aid. The photographs and memorabilia are all original.
Biographical / Historical
Jerry C. Debes (1920-1944) was born in Beaumont, Texas as one of five children of immigrant parents. His father Mike N. Debes (b.c. 1881) immigrated to America from Tripoli, Syria (now a part of Lebanon) in 1892. Mike married Vehiba, also Syrian, about 1907 and began his retail business in Beaumont, Texas. The Debes children attended Beaumont High School from which Jerry Debes graduated in 1938. He then attended the local Lamar College to study accounting.
On December 7, 1941, Debes was working as an accountant for the Stedman Wholesale Company. He enlisted in the US Army where he was sent to Camp Crowder, Mo. to be trained for the newly-established Signal Corps for the Second Division of the US Army Air Force (AAF). Preferring to become a pilot, Debes then began training at the Wilson & Bonafils Flying School in Chickasha, Oklahoma but failed to finish the program. He then studied at the bombardier school at the George Air Force base in Victorville, CA. and graduated on July 31, 1943. He did additional training as a bombardier at the Air Force bases in Pueblo, CO and Tuscan, AZ eventually becoming a bombardier instructor. In the spring of 1944, he became certified as an aviation navigator.
Lt. Jerry C. Debes was then transferred to the RAF base in Halesworth, England as part of the 846th Squadron of the 489th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force (8AF). Jerry and his crew christened their B-24 Liberator plane as the “Agony Wagon”. Although notorious for catching on fire because of the fuel tank placement, the B-24 Liberator eventually became the most produced American military aircraft in history. The crew of the “Agony Wagon” entered combat on May 30, 1944 at the very end of the Allied Forces’ “softening up” process of Nazi-occupied France prior to the D-Day invasion.
The Allied invasion of Normandy began on June 2, 1944. Debes flew six combat missions that focused exclusively on strategic targets such as factories, oil refineries, and airfields. On August 16, 1944, Jerry Debes and crew were on their tenth mission with orders to destroy the Rothensee plant and power stations in Magdeburg, Germany. After dropping their loads, the 846th squadron had turned back towards England when the “Agony Wagon” bombed accidently by another Allied plane. The Debes family received word that Jerry was “missing in action” one week later. Over a year later, the US War Department finally declared Second Lieutenant Jerry C. Debes officially “dead”. He was posthumously awarded the US Army’s Purple Heart and the USAF Air Medal for his service, and a tombstone in his memory was placed in the Lorraine American Cemetery outside St. Avold (Moselle), France in 1947. His family spent the rest of the decade trying unsuccessfully to discover the circumstances of his death. After visiting his brother’s grave in France, Dr. Robert Debes of Houston, Texas reopened the inquiry in 1988.