By Jonathan Aiken
Friday, September 25, 2009 — Carolyn Chapin has a simple but peaceful view. There’s a small country lane, and behind that, a field of green pasture followed by a line of maples and oaks that are a lush green.
The August air in Woodbury, Connecticut is hot and humid, the sky is November grey. It’s Monday, the 10th of August. A few relatives and a minister from the small Episcopal Church are gathered around a small dark box, and a freshly dug hole.
Carolyn Chapin’s remains have come home to her parents, ending a long journey that began more than 65 years earlier when the B-25 military plane the Red Cross staffer was on crashed into a barren mountain in Italy. She’s being buried between her mother and father in the family plot in a Revolutionary War-era cemetery adjacent to a white clapboard church that dates back to 1740.
This story of her homecoming begins in 1942, when records indicate Carolyn Chapin joined the American Red Cross as a correspondent in the Communications Department. Her job was to bring the war, and the role of the Red Cross in it, home to readers of Red Cross-published magazines. Her assignment: tell the story of U.S. forces fighting to liberate North Africa from the Nazis.
She was already well acquainted with travel. “Carolyn worked for Macy’s as a home furnishings buyer in Europe,” said Bruce Chapin, her nephew. “She had already been through Africa, India and I think she got as far east as Shanghai. She was a traveler. Her reporting for Red Cross was an extension of that and a good fit for her.”
In 1943, when Carolyn Chapin was making her way to Algiers, Algeria, the sound bite had yet to be invented, television was still flickering in the lab and the only instant messaging going on was on the comic page, on Dick Tracy’s wristwatch.
Back then, Red Cross used a variety of magazines as one way to reach potential donors. They went out regularly to subscribers who joined Red Cross and paid annual membership dues.
“Those early Red Cross publications provided detailed information regarding the organization’s activities at home and abroad.” noted Susan R. Watson, Chief Archivist at the Red Cross. “Before the era of TV and now the internet, they were a primary vehicle for communication and promotion”.
It was Carolyn Chapin’s job to show how Red Cross Service Clubs and mobile, front-line canteens brought small touches of home to GI Joes across North Africa, making a big difference in the lives of men and women who were far from wherever they really wanted to be.
In one of her early stories, dated April 1943, she wrote about the transformation of an empty school building in Algiers into a Service Club for GI’s and how necessity was the mother of invention for Red Cross workers trying to outfit a club with virtually no raw materials to work with:
“The Americans put on their thinking caps (non-rationed) and bought native pottery bowls for coffee cups…salvaged the wood from packing crates in which their own supplies had come…and gave it to local carpenters to make desks, lamp bases, file trays, supply cabinets, knobby coat racks and double-decker beds for the club dormitory.”
Carolyn’s stories for Red Cross covered a wide range. She wrote of the experiences of 18 female American field hospital workers in Benghazi, a coastal town in Libya, the only American women within 200 miles. She also compiled a collection of factoids for an NBC Radio story showing American soldiers fighting in the Mediterranean theater were a hungry bunch, consuming 25.2 million doughnuts by September 1943.
On May 10, 1944, Carolyn Chapin was out of Africa and bound for Naples. On the island of Corsica off the Italian coast, she boarded a B-25, joining four Army personnel to hitch a ride on what was supposed to be a 30-minute, cross-island mail run. The weather was soup and in the fog, the plane crashed into a barren mountainside and exploded. No one survived.
Army and Red Cross reports at the time suggested no remains could be recovered. Few personal effects were found – but one of them was a woman’s shoe.
Some 4,000 feet up Mt. Cagna, Carolyn Chapin and her travelling companions were in what seemed to be their final resting place: a craggy mountain slope filled with house-sized boulders and huge crevices.
Fast-forward to May 1989: A Corsican villager, who witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, tells authorities he saw local residents bury the dead in some of the towering crevices that streak the mountain.
The Corsicans recovered the remains, along with some personal effects and plane parts. Later, U.S. recovery teams also searched the mountain, and sent what they found to the U.S. Central Identification Labs at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. That’s where the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) spent years analyzing the remains, using methods that ranged from DNA samples taken from living relatives, to a process of elimination to conclude the single woman on board that aircraft was Carolyn Chapin, correspondent, American Red Cross.
“These are the folks who actually ascended the mountain and dug stuff out – and sifted sands and did all the hard work, just to do what they could to bring someone home,” Bruce Chapin noted.
The State Department has an office that handles unidentified cold cases, POWs, MIAs and Americans who just wander into places they shouldn’t. A call in September 2005 from that office seeking Carolyn’s relatives to confirm her identity caught Bruce Chapin by surprise.
“There’s a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. I had been thinking about my aunt before this…so it was serendipity that here’s a call out of the blue that there’s another group of people wanting to find her. I thought: Wow, that’s great!” Chapin said.
Between the more than three years from the time the State Department called, until he received a letter in March 2009 formally identifying his Aunt Carolyn’s remains, Bruce Chapin began to research his aunt’s story. He turned to Red Cross Archivist Susan Watson, who provided him with photographs, service records and copies of the stories she wrote.
That history helped bring Carolyn Chapin to life for two relatives: niece Cindy, who was just a few months old at the time, and Bruce, a nephew she never knew she had. Bruce was born after his aunt was killed.
“What Susan and others at Red Cross were able to dig up and provide to us gave me a chance to hear Carol’s voice, which I had never heard before,” Bruce Chapin said. “I now have things about Carol that I can pass along to next generations of our family – it’s part of the family record now. We lost a lot, and now we’ve been able to recover some of that.”
At the family’s request, the State Department contacted Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C., and asked for assistance in bringing Carolyn Chapin’s remains home. She was laid to rest with her parents in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Woodbury on August 10.
For Bruce Chapin, his sister Cindy and generations of the Chapin family yet to come, the effort to find Carolyn’s story and bring her home to her parents brought to life a missing part of their family’s history and their aunt’s service.
“All we had before was this picture on a wall, that was it, just a picture on the wall” he said. “Now, I have a much better picture of who my aunt was that I never had before, and for that I am eternally grateful.”
In the will she wrote in the summer of 1942, about six months before she left Washington for Algeria, Carolyn Chapin wrote: “I have little to leave you all but love.”
Now however, the Chapin family has its memories, her parents are forever re-united with their daughter, and Carolyn Chapin has both the recognition and the gratitude of the American Red Cross.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.