It is not uncommon for multiple sons to serve their country in a time of need and sacrifice. One local family provided four sons for service during the Second World War but only two of their sons would survive the conflict. This is the story one of those fallen sons.
Pierre (later Peter) Lab left France in 1837 with his wife and four children for a new life in America. The family settled in Lawrence Township, Tuscarawas County within a year of their arrival and, shortly after, they welcomed two new daughters. The sons, of which there were four, all worked on their father’s farm before moving on to start their own families and farms. One of those sons, Louis Lab (1825-1900) married Harriet Vernier (1828-1917) in 1855 and raised nine children of his own, including six sons and three daughters.
The oldest of Lewis and Harriet’s sons, Felix Lab (1855-1918), worked on his father’s farm during his youth and prior to his marriage to Regina Leiser (1864-1941) in 1882. After his marriage Felix began to work as a laborer in a variety of endeavors in and around Dover and Lawrence Township. Felix and Regina only had two children, sons Henry (1884-1946) and Lawrence (1898-1969), during the course of their marriage. Henry married Mary Anne Rieger (1895-1942) around 1915 and began his own family. After the death of his father in 1918, Henry’s family lived in his mother’s household on Eighth Street in Dover.
Henry and Mary Lab raised five sons at the house on Eighth Street and sent their children to St. Joseph’s High School for their education. When war broke out in December 1941, four of the couple’s sons enlisted in the United States military. One son, Ralph L. Lab (1919-1944), enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps in August 1941. Ralph was sent for basic training to the Army Air Corps’ Jefferson Barracks in Missouri and, after completing basic training, Sergeant Lab was directed to radio operator training at Scott Field, Illinois. After completing that training he was assigned to a B-17 in the 381st Bomb Group, activated in January 1943, on its way to Ridgewell Airfield, located in the countryside southeast of Cambridge, England.
The 381st arrived at Ridgewell Airfield in early June 1943 and undertook its first mission on June 22, 1943. The 381st, during the course of their missions, often encountered heavy resistance from German aircraft and anti-aircraft fire resulting in numerous casualties and aircraft losses. The unit flew 53 missions in 1943, incurring recorded losses on 20 of those missions. It is unclear when Sergeant Lab arrived at Ridgewell or when he went on his first mission. He is known to have flown in at least five combat missions before his death. That fateful mission was on January 11, 1944.
The morning of January 11, 1944 the 381st was tasked with a bombing mission over the German city of Oschersleben. The route to the target would take the B-17s almost due east, over occupied Netherlands, into Germany. The weather quickly deteriorated as the the bomber formation crossed the English Channel into the Netherlands. As they approached the German border, they encountered heavy German anti-aircraft fire and fighters. Sergeant Lab’s B-17, nicknamed “Hellcat”, suffered the loss of three of her engines before it ever reached the target area. The decision was made by the pilots to break formation and try to return to Ridgewell.
After turning westward, and when “Hellcat” dropped out from under the cloud deck, the crew could see German fighters waiting to pounce on any bombers that might have turned back. The B-17 was directly above Lake IJsselmeer in the Netherlands when the crew began to bail out as the aircraft lost power. The B-17’s lone survivor recorded that “I saw radio operator Sgt. Ralph Lab jump out feet first through the aft escape hatch in the floor.” The B-17 hit the water before any of the men in parachutes did. Those that landed in the water were dragged to the bottom by the weight of their kit; their life vests proved useless. Only one of the crew who hit the water near a patrol boat was saved from drowning and lived to tell the tale.
Sergeant Lab was reported as missing-in-action shortly after and it was not until after the war, and the return of the surviving crew member from a prisoner-of-war camp, that the family learned that their son and brother had been killed. Sergeant Ralph L. Lab’s body was never recovered, but he is memorialized at The Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, Netherlands and in St. Joseph’s Calvary Cemetery in Dover.
For a detailed record of the loss of the “Hellcat” visit: http://www.zzairwar.nl/dossiers/152.html
For information on the history of the 381st Bomb Group during World War Two visit: http://www.381stbg.org/index.php
© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.