HEAVENER — There before his eyes, spelled out in a series of dots and dashes, were the words Tom Roop had hoped never to read:
His son Carl’s name, along with the phrase “missing, presumed dead.”
And no matter how hard he stared, he couldn’t make them read any differently.
A rural mail carrier whose job included transcribing telegrams, Roop would absorb the shocking news about his son, which came one January 1944 morning during World War II, in the only way he knew how.
He focused on his work.
“He completed his whole mail route before going home to tell his wife,” said Kathy Dunn, Roop’s granddaughter. “He was dedicated to his job, and there are people still living who will tell you that.
“But I also think he used that time just to try to collect himself and pray about it.”
His son, whose plane had gone down in the English Channel according to the message, would eventually be declared killed in action.
Sadly, the community of Heavener was not done with such grim communiqués. Just a few weeks later, another telegram arrived.
And anyone who had known Carl Roop would’ve immediately recognized the name on it.
In a manner eerily reminiscent of Roop, Carl Cary, Roop’s best friend, was also dead, killed when his plane was shot down.
The news about the two Carls, remembered as fun-loving and full of life, shook their hometown.
And it left the families with unanswered questions.
Today, more than 75 years later, while some mysteries remain, much has been learned about Roop and Cary and their deaths.
A nephew of Cary’s, who had a lifelong desire to know more, even traveled to Europe, where he tracked down eyewitnesses. What they had to tell him would help write a surprising final chapter to his uncle’s story.
Roop’s survivors have learned more, as well. But unlike Cary’s, they still lack the one thing that would bring final closure.
To this day, Roop’s remains have never been found.
‘Thinking of the agony’
As a girl growing up, Dunn understood why Memorial Day was special for her family.
“All through the years, I would watch my grandmother stand and weep at the ceremonies when the Army Air Corps song was sung,” said Dunn, of Oklahoma City, whose mother was Roop’s sister.
The death of her Uncle Carl, she added, was not something her grandparents ever got over.
“It makes me cry even now thinking of the agony they felt,” she said.
If there was anyone who could identify with the feeling, it was Carl Cary’s survivors. They, too, would remember their loss every Memorial Day.
As a boy growing up in Tulsa, Bob Cary came to idolize his late uncle Carl, whose brother was Bob’s dad, Bill.
Bill, also a WWII veteran, had his late brother’s Purple Heart and pilot’s wings, and Bob used to stare at them in wonder.
“I always wondered about what happened and who he was.”
Like Roop’s nieces and nephews, old photos helped Bob at least begin to answer those questions.
In one of them, Roop and Cary, atop the latter’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle, look like they’re about to ride right out of the frame.
Cary’s hands grip the handlebars, his dark hair standing up straight and slightly back. He appears cool and confident at the controls.
Roop, a leather helmet and goggles on top of his head, sits behind him, grinning.
As that photo suggests, the friends were often together.
They were both in the school band, the Boy Scouts. They even hopped trains together. Cary’s dad worked for the railroad, so they could take free rides anytime.
Possibly the friends’ last official act together was their high school graduation in 1939.
From there, each planning to study engineering, Roop went on to the University of Oklahoma, while Cary, who would soon marry Roop’s cousin, attended then-Oklahoma A&M.
That’s where they were in December 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, drawing the U.S. into WWII.
Both Roop and Cary soon enlisted in the Army Air Corps, hoping to become pilots.
But only Cary would attain the goal, flying C-47 transports.
Color-blindness tripped Roop up. Instead, he was assigned to a B-24 bomber crew and became a ball turret gunner.
Going on to join their respective squadrons, both Cary and Roop soon would find themselves half a world away, those small-town streets where they once raised dust only a memory.
All the ‘what ifs’
In Cary’s nephew’s mind, what might well be his earliest memory is still vivid.
“The Honor Guard firing their rifles, the flag-draped coffin. It’s imprinted on my memory. It was spring — April 4 — and the sun was shining.”
Bob Cary never met his “Uncle Buddy,” as Carl Cary was known to nieces and nephews. He died before Bob Cary was born and was buried initially in Belgium.
But when the remains came home in 1950, Bob was there for the service.
Cary’s grave still stands today in Heavener’s Memorial Park Cemetery.
Knowing his uncle’s final resting place, however, was not enough for Bob. He wanted to know how it happened.
The basics, at least, were not hard to find out.
A pilot with the 438th Troop Carrier Group who flew in the D-Day invasion, 2nd Lt. Cary had met his fate during Operation Market Garden, when his plane “Little Jo” was shot down.
It happened on Sept. 19, 1944, while flying over Retie, Belgium. Cary, 23, died in the crash, along with his three crew mates.
Or so the report went at the time.
Bob Cary, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, believes the truth is more complicated.
It was a couple of decades ago, after visiting Retie while in Europe for work, that he first began to piece it together.
After that first visit, he would go back to the town multiple times.
With volunteers translating, Bob interviewed more than a dozen eyewitnesses to the crash, which was well remembered locally.
The biggest surprise: He now believes his uncle survived it.
It’s based on the account of a farmer who’d been part of the resistance. He had gone to the crash scene, where, from hiding, he saw two airmen who’d been taken prisoner by the responding Germans.
He also saw what happened next.
“It was very disturbing,” Bob said of learning that the Germans, instead of aiding them, killed their captives on the spot.
One of the prisoners, the farmer recalled, appeared to have a broken leg. This matched up with a description Cary later found of his uncle’s remains, which indicated his femur was broken.
“It’s not absolute proof, but I think it quite likely was him,” he said.
“It still causes an immense sadness in me — all the ‘what ifs’. What if they could have kept the plane up for just the two miles (to) ... Allied territory?”
Bob’s new friends in Retie shared his sadness. In 2004, with Bob present, they dedicated a memorial to Carl Cary and his crew near the site of the crash.
“All the people there, including young people, are still so thankful of what Americans sacrificed,” he said.
First and last mission
Could Roop’s story also have an unwritten chapter?
Although it wasn’t likely, Bo Roop, Carl’s older brother, was determined to find out.
A WWII Marine himself, he’d heard of wounded airmen suffering from amnesia.
On the off-chance that Carl was alive somewhere, Bo — who died last December at 99 — set out to learn everything he could about his brother’s fate.
It had happened Dec. 31, 1943, on Roop’s first combat mission with the 93rd Bomb Group.
On the return flight, the plane, having sustained heavy damage, was forced down in the English Channel.
Roop, 21, and four others were reported missing, and eventually declared dead.
But four crew members survived.
Years later, Bo was able to talk to two of them, as well as the British officer who led the rescue.
What they had to say brought closure of a sort: They’d seen Carl’s body floating away to sea.
Bo accepted that his brother was likely dead. In a symbolic gesture, he placed a wreath on the water at the crash site.
Not having a true grave, Roop’s family has made do with other memorials.
One, a small marker, sits in the Heavener cemetery near where Cary is buried. And Dunn’s mother placed a memorial bench at OU. It’s near the stadium, where he once played in the band.
There are memorials, too, of a different kind.
Dunn and others have noticed how her son, Steve, athletic director at Broken Arrow High School, bears a striking resemblance to Roop, she said.
“It’s as if they could be twins,” Dunn said.
A final mystery
Cary and Roop shared a lot in their short lives.
A name. A hometown. A bond of friendship.
But it’s the pair’s shared fate that, in the minds of friends and loved ones, keeps them forever linked.
And forever young.
Born later, Bob Cary has only ever seen his uncle’s face in old photos, where it has the benefit of never aging.
“While growing up, there were always pictures of Uncle Buddy hanging in our home,” he said.
Cary’s desire to put a story with that face has become his way of paying tribute.
Dunn, who soon will retire, said one of her next projects is to get Arlington National Cemetery to approve a marker there for Carl Roop.
Although successful efforts are being made to find and identify WWII remains, Dunn hasn’t given much thought to it happening in her uncle’s case.
If his remains are ever recovered, the best thing about it, Dunn said, would be to finally hold a proper memorial service at a proper gravesite.
But even then, it would be less for her generation of the family than for the next.
“It’s important for them to remember, and that would be something that would help,” she said.
If not concerned so much about her uncle’s remains, though, Dunn does have at least one final question she would like to answer.
It involves Roop’s memorial at the Heavener cemetery, and a certain mystery visitor.
“For decades, every year without fail, on Memorial Day, Veterans Day as well as on his birthday, somebody would come. And they would place a small bouquet of flowers on his marker,” she said.
Dunn did some checking around, but it was no one in the family.
The tradition finally stopped a few years ago. Today, the person remains unknown.
“I always wondered if there had been a special girlfriend who had moved on, but still remembered and honored his life,” Dunn said.
“I would like to know the story behind it.”