39th Bomb Group (VH)

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1st Lt Edward L. Bates, Jr.

Born in Pittsfield on Jan. 30, 1922, the son of Edward L. Bates Sr. and Kathryn Reddington Bates, he attended local schools and was a 1939 graduate of St. Joseph's High School. Awarded the first Charles P. Steinmetz scholarship, he attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., and, after interrupting his education to serve in World War II, graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1948.

Bates was the navigator on Crew 21that was shot down on May 14, 1945, after releasing bombs over Nagoya, an industrial city called the Detroit of Japan. After a desperate attempt to escape enemy waters, the plane was ditched in the ocean about halfway between Japan and Iwo Jima.

"It was like a rock hitting the plane, you heard a thump, thump, thump," Bates recalled in an interview 50 years later. "I looked out and saw a hole in the left wing, so we cut the left engine. Then we started to lose gasoline. I just kept thinking that I had been served Mass that morning."

For what happened next, Bates received the Soldier's Medal for heroism. Once the plane was in the water, Bates disregarded his own safety and helped three of his fellow crew members reach a life raft, his citation said. He then took command of the survivors and guided them through a night of violent rainstorms, heavy seas and sharks that circled their leaking raft.

They were rescued the next day by the destroyer USS Doherty. Bates was awarded the Soldier's Medal for heroism, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal (with clusters), the Purple Heart, and several battle theater ribbons.

For his heroic acts, he was honored as grand marshall of the 1995 Pittsfield 4th of July Parade.

Bates returned from service, finished his education and spent 37 years working for General Electric Co., including as manager of testing for GE's power transformer division before retiring in 1983.

Bates married Alice Beaulieu Bates, to whom he was married for 56 years, until her death on June 15, 2003. They have three sons, Robert P., John J., and Dennis R. a daughter, Katie, 14 grandchildren and a great grandson. Another son, Edward L. Bates III, who suffered from disease thought to be related to Agent Orange he had been in contact with during service in Vietnam, died on Nov. 6, 1986, while awaiting a heart and lung transplant

In the late 1970s, Bates became concerned about the use of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, at the GE plant and began trying to extract information from the company about the health of the workers.

In 1997, he told a reporter that "at first, nobody believed us. Nobody was paying attention."

"Another supervisor and I, we were noticing that we seemed to be going to about a wake a week for people we worked with. It just started to seem out of the ordinary," he said.

Bates was aware that PCBs -- now considered a probable cause of cancer -- had been used at the plant since the 1930s, and that it was noted as a possible health risk as far back as the 1950s.

He also knew from his own observations that a large amount had leaked or spilled, contaminating the soil and the Housatonic River. He began a campaign to get GE, Massachusetts health officials and the EPA to investigate and conduct a mortality study of his coworkers.

Bates, along with co-worker Charles Fessenden, tried for many years to get hold of a worker mortality study that GE had conducted in the 1980s. The controversial document surfaced in 1991, but Bates believed GE had misused data and produced a bad study meant to cover up the link he was sure existed between the deaths and the use of PCBs. Over the next 20 years, his family said, he amassed more than 10,000 pages of documents, depositions, and letters related to this investigation and subsequent clean up.

Bates' work and his voice became a central part of the push to clean the GE plant and the Housatonic River, and helped lead to the massive PCB-cleanup settlement among GE, the EPA, Pittsfield and a half-dozen state and federal agencies. The resulting cleanup has been underway for the past six years.

In October 2003, Bates was awarded a plaque from the Housatonic River Initiative, an environmental advocacy group, for his work. Timothy Gray, HRI's executive director, said yesterday that Bates was a crusader for a cleanup before HRI ever existed.

"He taught us so much about PCBs and the truth about how much was in the environment, all contrary to what GE and the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] was telling the public," Gray said. "He cared about every employee he ever had at GE, and I just can't say enough about what he did."

Ed Bates, Jr. died 26 August 2005 at the age of 83 yrs old. He was buried with full military honors.

Bates was a past president of the GE Foremen's Club, a member of the GE Elfun Society, a 40-year member of the American Legion Post 68, past director and member of the former Stanley Club. He helped found the South Little League in the 1950s. A registered professional Mass. Engineer, he was a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and a member of the Berkshire County Deputy Sheriffs' Association. He was a longtime communicant of North American Martyrs Church, a lifelong Red Sox Fan, and enjoyed horse racing.

View Edward L. Bates, Jr's orders authorizing Award of Soldier's Medal by clicking here
Note: Ed's crewmate, Tail Gunner Sgt Vic Durrance also was awarded the Soldier's Medal for his heroic actions after the ditching - Click here to view the order.

Crew 21 Main Page
61st Squadron Crew Index
Sources: Excerpts of Obituary for Edward L. Bates, Jr., Published Aug 28, 2005 in the Berkshire Eagle; 39th BG Assoc Archives