The Stars Turned Gold
They came from cornfields and corner stores, from soda shops and steel mills. They were farmers and factory workers, clerks and coal miners. Many had never traveled beyond the periphery of their hometown. Some had been called up. Others volunteered. But, all of them were stepping into an experience that would forever alter the course of their lives.
Left behind were sweethearts and parents, children and friends. In windows throughout the land, blue stars wilted on white banners bound by crimson borders. With one star, worry presided. With more stars, it multiplied. Families did their best to persevere in the absence of those who had gone to war. They lived and they worked and they continued on, girding their spirits against the possibility of that unwelcome day when the stars turned gold.
Flags and flowers cover national cemeteries across the country, identifying the final resting place of the hundreds of thousands who gave their last full measure of devotion. One of those flags marks the modest memorial stone of a 22-year-old Army Air Corps pilot from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. His name was Royal Stratton.
By all accounts, Royal was a sweet kid —the kind who would do anything for you. His youthful days were spent dreaming of becoming a pilot. His nights were spent dreaming of Mary Ellen. To further both ambitions, he took flying lessons at Newcastle airport and in the summer of 1943, at the age of 20, he married his true love. The following year, they welcomed daughter Vickie. On his fourth day of fatherhood, Royal dressed in his military flight suit and set out to join his squadron in the war-torn South Pacific. He never returned home.
I first learned of the 4th Emergency Rescue Squadron when my production partner, Christopher Johnson, spoke of the mission that claimed the life of his great-uncle Royal. This valiant group of young men were stationed on the island of Iwo Jima and had been tasked with flying, mostly unarmed, through perilous combat zones in order to locate and rescue downed airmen who were adrift and unprotected in enemy waters. Over the duration of their service, the 4th E.R.S. would log over 6000 hours of flying time, conduct 862 rescue missions and save the lives of 576 men.
On May 29, 1945, just twelve weeks before the end of the war, Royal and his crew received instructions to search for the men of the Dragon Lady, a flak-damaged B29 that had been forced to ditch and whose exact coordinates were unknown. After hours of searching hundreds of nautical miles over the open ocean, nine of those crew members were located and rescued, but during that effort Royal’s life was lost.
As it is for so many families who have lost a loved one to war, questions remain and reverberate for generations. What could have been, if only…? To assuage his family’s lingering grief and bereavement, Christopher decided to find out exactly what happened to his great-uncle on that ill-fated day…and I decided to help him.
We traveled the world to locate and interview the surviving members of that rescue squadron. Their stories, replete with epic valor, were not diluted through derivative sources, nor eroded by the passing of time. Each of those irreplaceable firsthand accounts underscored the resilience of the human spirit and revealed a service and heroism that helped forge the most unified era of our nation’s history.
The culmination of our decade-long undertaking is the documentary/narrative hybrid film Journey to Royal: A WWII Rescue Mission. This film is our final salute to the Greatest Generation and to all who served in the global conflict of the Second World War. It is our letter of ineffable gratitude to those who answered the call of duty and made the ultimate sacrifice.
The world is full of heroes whose stories we may never know, but that doesn’t diminish or invalidate the value of their contributions. The story of the 4th Emergency Rescue Squadron’s noble service was not an uncommon one. From front lines to assembly lines, an inherent sense of duty and commitment pervaded that era when America had a unity of purpose. Despite differences in background, personal beliefs or politics, millions banded together and proved that the power of unification could triumph over seemingly insurmountable adversity.
“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
—General John A. Logan, May 1868
As we approach the last Monday of this month, when barbeques, baseball games, picnics and parades usher in the unofficial start of summer, let us stop to remember and honor those who won’t be in attendance —the servicemen and women who left their final footprints on the battlefields of the world. Let us remember to give thanks for the freedom and opportunities their sacrifice has afforded us. For all of us who are beneficiaries of their service, every day should be Memorial Day.
©2021 Mariana Tosca. All rights reserved.
Journey to Royal: A WWII Rescue Mission is available on streaming and cable platforms and through all major online retailers. For a full list of where to watch, visit journeytoroyal.com.
View the Journey To Royal: A WWII Rescue Mission trailer here:
Journey to Royal: A WWII Rescue Mission
featuring Earl Holliman, Marsha Hunt, Janis Paige
produced by Mariana Tosca, p.g.a. www.MTosca.com
written and directed by Christopher Johnson www.ChrisJohnsonFilms.com