By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Seventy-six years after the Invasion of Normandy (D-Day), on June 6, 1944, we wish to pay tribute to a young Texan and Baylor graduate (class of 1940), Walter Davis Gernand, who died on a return trip after participating in this historic mission during World War II. Gernand, a former Baylor Bear football player, was from Beaumont, and signed up for service in the U.S. Army Air Forces on May 1, 1941. He received his pilot’s wing’s on December 12, 1941. Soon after, he was flying P-38 Lightnings in the 50th Fighter Squadron. In February of 1944, he transferred to the 8th Reconnaissance Photo Squadron, part of the USAAF’s 325th Photographic Wing.
Gernand had logged many flight-hours by this time, and his skills were much needed in the U.S. and Allies’ fight against Hitler’s Third Reich. His squadron’s intelligence work, as well as that of other similar units, helped with military operations including the U.S. Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. On June 8, 1944, returning from this D-Day mission, Gernand’s photo-reconnaissance aircraft crashed in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in the south of England. It is believed that mechanical failure caused the mishap. Eyewitnesses stated that he initially tried to land the crippled aircraft in a field with a park nearby but quickly avoided this area after seeing children at play below. His quick decision saved countless lives but proved fatal for Gernand and his crew member as the aircraft slammed into a railroad embankment and exploded on impact, killing him and his USAAF photographer, Sgt. Elbert Lynch.
In doing so, Gernand not only died for his country and cause but also sacrificed his life in trying to avoid these children in the English countryside, the same ones he was fighting for across the English Channel. Gernand and Lynch’s destination was the USAAF’s home at Royal Air Force Watton, in Norfolk, England. Their remains were later interred at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, Cambridgeshire, England.
In 1972, the Chiltern Historical Aircraft Preservation Group received news of the crash site in nearby High Wycombe, England. The railroad embankment crash-site was excavated and unearthed one of the two engines, a propeller fragment, and Gernand’s gold Baylor University ’40, class ring (below). The Preservation Group contacted the University and the ring was presented to Walter Gernand’s mother, Mrs. C.A. Gernand of Beaumont, TX. Mrs. Gernand later returned the ring to Baylor where it was kept on display in the Letterman’s Lounge at Baylor Stadium, in memory of the fallen warrior and former Baylor Bear.
Frank Jasek Papers, Accession #3932, Box #6, Folder #8, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.