ROCHELLE — Tom Westin never had the opportunity to meet his uncle Jay Ira Carpenter, who was also considered to be his hero.
The Rochelle resident shared memories told to him by his mother and grandmother of the World War I aviator who was killed in action 100 years ago.
Carpenter flew a biplane fighter aircraft, the Sopwith Camel, as a lieutenant for the Royal Flying Corp before he was reported missing in 1918. It was not until 1921 when the military discovered he had been buried in a French farmyard cemetery. Carpenter’s body was then brought back to Rochelle and buried at Lawnridge Cemetery.
“My mother and my grandma talked about him quite a bit,” Westin recalls. “At the time there were lots of write-ups in the paper. In his last letter to my grandmother, he said he was strafing the Germans.”
Westin said his uncle was responsible for transmitting the enemy’s positions via a telegraph positioned on his knee. After he had been reported missing, several Army officers flew to England searching for answers to Carpenter’s whereabouts.
The cause of Carpenter’s death has never been determined.
“Nobody knows what happened…could have been airplane fail. There were stories of failures they had back in the day… those planes weren’t very safe. They had no parachutes and they were prone to catching on fire. When that happened at altitude the only thing they could do was crash the plane to keep from burning alive.”
High school years
Carpenter, also known as “Carp,” had been a well-known student at Rochelle Township High School, active in football, track, and basketball along with chorus. The 1912 photo in the Tatler listed several of his high school achievements including class president and class vice president, acting in the class play and as athletic editor for the yearbook.
Carpenter also attended the University of Illinois where he played varsity football.
Westin said his uncle had been working at Montgomery Wards in the plumbing department when he answered a classified ad in search of an aviator. At the age of 25 Carpenter applied, interviewed at Camp Sheridan in Chicago and was one of 10 people accepted. He went to Canada to learn how to fly, and then to a gunnery in Texas. Reportedly the Army Air Corp had been fairly new at the time.
“He was very good at what he did, and could send Morse code. He was signed to the Royal Air Force, and would fly over enemy lines and send back his position, where the troops were, and what was going on,” Westin said. “I looked up to him growing up…he was my hero.”