Told at last: Man chronicles father's WWII experiences
New London — Richard Foye remembers his father standing in the door of the den at the family’s Montauk Avenue home and saying, “There we go,” as his children watched scenes from World War II-era television shows of planes taking off from aircraft carriers.
For William “Bill” Foye, it was a rare reference to his service as an F6F Hellcat pilot on the USS Enterprise. And he never talked to his family about his bailout and survival over Los Banos, Laguna, in the Philippines after his fighter plane was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire on Oct. 18, 1944.
Foye would survive four months in the jungle after being rescued, hidden and fed by the Filipino guerillas and some local citizens who supported the United States in the war.
Richard Foye, one of Bill and Elizabeth Fetzer Foye’s eight children who also would become an educator like his father, recalls a family dinner not long before his father died in 1993, when the elder Foye showed him a parachute from his war years.
Richard Foye was intrigued and asked about it, and became even more interested when he learned that it came from a trunk in his father’s attic that contained other memorabilia from Bill Foye’s war service. Much later, Richard Foye’s mother would give him the trunk, setting in motion what would become an almost decadelong quest to research and write his father’s story.
Earlier this fall, Richard Foye received his first shipment of eight boxes of his published book, “Foye and the Filipinos,” a project that was both an obsession and a labor of love for him.
It chronicles his father’s story of bravery, survival and his ability to put his World War II service behind him and refocus on his family and his career, which included serving as the principal at New London High School.
Richard Foye spent six months cataloguing the contents of his father’s wartime steamer trunk, which contained among other things the parachute, Navy medical records and correspondence with members of his squadron. He still marvels today that, even with eight children, the trunk was never discovered until his father first mentioned it and his mother later gave it to him.
From the trunk, and an account of his ordeal written by Bill Foye in 1945 and cleared by Navy censors for media use at the time, Richard Foye pieced together his father’s story.
'Please save the American pilot'
Over the course of his research, he and his wife, Delia Chumpitazi Foye, would travel to the Philippines to visit the location where his father bailed out and was hidden and to get a firsthand perspective of the terrain and the people who live there today.
They also spent several days at the National Archives in College Park, Md., where declassified war records, including accounts of Filipino guerillas who were tortured and killed for assisting the Americans, are warehoused.
And there were visits to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, where Bill Foye spent time.
In 2015, Richard Foye even did a guest stint on the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. On board, Foye was able to get a feel for what it was like for his father, in more primitive times, to take off and land his Hellcat from a carrier.
The Foyes traveled to California to meet and interview Leonisa Viloria, now almost 95, who was a teenager working in the fields the day Bill Foye’s Hellcat was hit.
She has recounted seeing a U.S. plane with a star on its side spewing black smoke and sputtering until it crashed and burst into flames.
She watched Ensign Foye ditch the plane. “Please, please, please save the American pilot,” she thought.
Viloria told Richard Foye the crash site was so close, she could have reached out and touched the wreckage.
Her father was a Philippine scout and her family and many villagers were supportive of the Americans and active against the Japanese. Later, she would be questioned by the Japanese about what she saw that day but she never divulged the truth to them.
The book also includes accounts from Sofia Tidon, a 17-year-old at the time with rudimentary medical skills learned at a rural high school, who was among the first to treat Bill Foye. She would make four two-hour trips, through checkpoints, to assist the downed pilot in an isolated hut.
Lots of bananas and rain
When Richard Foye started his research, he knew he wanted to learn as much as he could about his father’s war story and preserve it for his siblings and Bill and Betty Foye’s 19 grandchildren. The fact that his father served on the Enterprise, and that much of its history has been recorded, helped in his endeavor. But he was surprised at how much more he would uncover, and the good fortune he would encounter along the way.
“I was getting so much information, not running into dead-ends, but just one door opening after another,” he said. “There were just all these coincidences; an unseen guiding hand. I never would have thought I’d meet a woman who saw my father bail out.”
But he did, after scrolling the internet on his iPad at home one day and searching for anything on Philippine guerillas and World War II. He came upon an article and, while reading it, realized the woman quoted in the story had to have watched his father, on his 23rd mission, be forced out of his Hellcat and scramble for his life after ditching his plane.
He tracked down the author of the article, and he led Foye to Viloria.
In Milan, Italy, the Foyes would interview relatives of a family who helped to hide and care for Bill Foye until he could be rescued.
And in doing his research, he would come to better understand his father’s enjoyment of bananas.
In the 1945 account of his ordeal written by Ensign Foye, he penned, “About November first I moved down in the middle of the banana grove to the house of an ancient who had been a guerilla in the Spanish War days. He spoke no English but sure could make you understand that he was happy to have you stay. Here I had the best bananas of my life, pink fleshed and deliciously sweet. I used to eat 12 to 20 a day. I could also get sun on my back, but only on about one rainless day out of nine.”
Emotionally exhausting research
When he was shot down and bailed out, Bill Foye broke his neck, but he wouldn’t be treated until much later. And that is how he would meet his wife, a Navy nurse. All the details of Foye’s fighter pilot service, his bailout and rescue, and his courtship and marriage to Betty Fetzer is documented in the 235-page hardcover book that includes many photographs.
Richard Foye self-published his account and has established two scholarship accounts, both administered through the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, to assist students in the area in the Philippines where his father was rescued. He is eternally grateful for the bravery the Filipinos showed and sacrifices they suffered, many of them tortured and killed.
He also is planning a local event to discuss his book and share copies of it, although he hasn’t set the details yet.
He credits his wife, Delia, with embracing and supporting the project as much as he did and said both of them were emotionally and physically exhausted following their trip to the Philippines.
At the National Archives, he said, Delia wept as she read a post-war account of a Filipino guerilla leader describing the torture and death of a family, including their 1-year-old boy, at the hands of the Japanese, who suspected the family of protecting Bill Foye. A copy of the report is included in the book.
So far, he has distributed his book to family and friends who helped him realize his dream of writing his father’s wartime story.
“It really touches people with military connections,” he said. “If they had a parent or relative who served in the Philippines in the war, well, no surprise here, they are moved.”
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