96th Bomb Group Veteran Dies At Battle of Britain Bunker During his “Final Mission”

Melvin Rector has always regretted not returning to England, where he had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. This year the 94-year-old veteran decided to go back to a place he last saw in 1945.

So important was this milestone to him that the American Airlines captain of Rector’s flight to England asked him to come to the cockpit and took a picture of the two of them together. Susan Jowers, who accompanied Rector on the trip, said:

“The flight attendant stopped us and said, ‘Mr. Rector, the captain would like to meet you'”.

On May 6th, Rector arrived in London for a tour of the sights and places he had served 71 years ago. His schedule included visits to his former base, RAF Snetterton Heath in Norfolk. But first, the veteran arrived at the Battle of Britain Bunker in the Uxbridge area.

Jowers, 60, has been like a daughter to Rector since 2011 when she served as his guardian during an Honor Flight trip to Washington, DC. She said that, “he walked out of that bunker like his tour was done.” As he left the bunker, he told Jowers that he felt dizzy. Jowers grabbed one of his arms while a stranger took the other. Rector passed away outside of the bunker.

They planned a small simple service for Rector while in London. Jowers expected three or four people to attend. However, others found out about the U.S. veteran who passed away in their country.

“They just wanted something simple, and when I found out a little background about Melvin, there is just no way that we were just going to give him a simple service,” said funeral director Neil Sherry, talking to the British ITV Network, which aired a news piece about Rector’s funeral service. “We wanted it to be as special as possible.”

Though none of them knew Rector, the Royal Air Force, US Air Force, and historians in London all attended and participated in the funeral with full military honors. “He certainly got a beautiful send-off,” Jowers said. “People everywhere, from Cambridge to London heard his story.”

US Army Major Leif Purcell told ITV that he expected only himself and a few U.S. military personnel would attend. He said:

“The representation from the Royal Air Force and the British Army that I saw here was phenomenal.”

Rector’s daughter, Sandy Vavruich of Gloversville, NY, was touched by the number of people who cared and attended her father’s funeral. “You go to a foreign country and they … honor a veteran,” she said. “It was so nice that he had them to participate in his service.” Vavruich said her father was in a peaceful place doing what he had set out to do. “He couldn’t have asked for a better way to go,” she said. “It was quick and painless. He had just gotten to see two planes and he passed away between them.”

Rector was assigned to the 96th Bomb Group in the war. He flew in bombing missions over Europe. He served from 1943 to 1951 and reached the rank of master sergeant.

Darlene O’Donnell, Rector’s step-daughter who lives across the street from Rector’s home, said that he had planned the trip for about six months. “He couldn’t wait to go,” she added.

Rector volunteered with Honor Flight, helped at his church, and did other volunteer work. In 2011, he was taken on an Honor Flight, which takes World War II veterans on all-expense paid trips to Washington to see the monuments erected in their honor. Jowers served as his guardian on the trip. Her father had also served in the Army Air Corps but passed away when she was young.

“Since then we became like father and daughter,” said Jowers, who has an interest in World War II history. “There was just something about Melvin. We had a connection.”

A funeral service for Rector, a father of six, is set for 11am, June 9th, at First Baptist Church of Barefoot Bay. Jowers said his remains were to be repatriated Tuesday.

“He completed his final mission,” she said.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE