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Son pens story of a World War II father he never knew
San Antonio Express-News
U.S. Army Air Corps uniform. A World War II pilot's medals and logbook. And two stacks of letters, neatly tied with narrow ribbons, one bunch penned by a homesick soldier, the other by his loving wife.
A military-issue footlocker, cracked open after nearly half a century like a mothball-and-mildew scented time capsule, yielded more than mere memorabilia.
It also changed a life.
In the sometimes tear-stained pages of his parents' correspondence, Conrad John Netting IV not only discovered a side of his mother that he had never known. He also found the father he had never met.
Netting, a San Antonio financial consultant, has poured his family's heart and soul into "Delayed Legacy: A Son's Amazing Search for the Full Story of His Father's Death After D-Day." It is a saga that includes a pilgrimage to France, where Netting and some of his relatives participated in the story's surprising conclusion.
"As I was writing it, I was thinking, 'Who is going to want to read this?'" Netting recalls with characteristic modesty. "And then I thought, 'If nothing else, it's my legacy to my family.'
"'I'm kind of in charge of all of this stuff that's happened, so let me put it together in a medium that you all can pass down.'"
Like many young couples during World War II, Netting's parents courted with a sense of urgency. Conrad John Netting III was a hard worker but an indifferent student who went to work for an oil company in Michigan after dropping out of Texas A&M.
While in school, however, Netting's best friend had introduced him to his sister. Seventeen-year-old Katherine Henderson was pretty, personable and a dead-ringer for actress Katharine Hepburn. The couple carried on a long-distance relationship — mostly by mail — and became engaged in 1942 on their second date.
Rather than take a military deferment due to his war-critical work, Netting had enlisted in the Army Air Corps. In February 1944, seven months after his wedding, Netting was ordered to England for duty with the 4th Fighter Group. His wife was several months pregnant. Netting was so sure she was going to have a boy that he had "Conjon IV" — the unborn baby's nickname — painted on the nose of his P-51 Mustang.
"Sure do like to daydream about our son," Netting wrote to his wife. "He is going to be one fine boy if he turns out as we plan, won't he?
"I'm eager as the devil to be able to be so awfully proud when I say, 'That's my son!'"
Back home in San Antonio, Katherine Netting wrote that she knew little Conrad IV would look exactly like his father "and the only thing he will inherit from me will be the love for his daddy."
"I can't do anything for you now," she wrote, "but write you every day and try to remind you of what a wonderful happiness we've had and what a much more wonderful happiness for years to come that we will have."
On June 10, 1944 — four days after D-Day — Netting failed to pull up from a dive while strafing a German truck convoy in Normandy. Conjon IV crashed and exploded, killing Netting. His son was born one month later.
For the next six months, Netting's widow kept writing almost every day, partly out of habit and partly because of the release it gave from her grief.
"Please help me through the hard years to come," she wrote in her final letter to her dead husband in February 1945. "Help me keep alive your spirit by never being bitter.
"I need your help so — you may be dead to others, but you will live forever in my heart."
After the war, Katherine Netting plunged into her work and went far. She got in on the ground floor at then-fledgling Texas Pharmacal Co. and eventually became CEO. Pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert bought the firm in 1966 and made her its first female vice president. She left in 1979 and started a second career as a management consultant and served as the first executive director of the San Antonio Area Foundation.
"She really brought the organization from working out of somebody's desk drawer to an honest-to-goodness, full-fledged San Antonio charity," her son recalls.
Katherine Netting remarried in 1973. She died in 1993 after a long illness. And then her son and his family opened the footlocker.
If it had stopped with the old letters, Conrad John Netting IV probably would have kept his parents' story in the family instead of writing his book. But one day in 2002, another letter arrived without warning, this one from France.
It had been written by a woman, the granddaughter of a cabinetmaker who had made the casket originally used to bury Netting's father. Now, the residents in her village planned to build a memorial to the American pilot who had given his life for la liberté. They needed more information about him.
"We hope you are maybe his son," Sylvie Grandin wrote. "Or his nephew or next to him."
Netting supplied the details the French needed. In turn, he got the final pieces of the puzzle of his father's fateful flight and its aftermath. A short time later, Netting's wife persuaded him to start writing a book and begin "the second half of your life."
"The first half is mortgage and kids and college education and career and everything," says Netting, an Alamo Heights High School graduate, class of 1962. "The second half of your life, like a football game, something takes you into the locker room and you come out and say, 'Here's what I'm going to do in the second half.'
"My wife said, 'You didn't get any choice. Here's what's been handed to you.'"
"Delayed Legacy" is much more than a mere family story. It is a tale that will tug at many heartstrings, especially those belonging to families that know the pain of separation by war. Netting's "family" legacy has already found a wide audience through a somewhat unlikely publisher.
Maverick Publishing Co. in San Antonio usually limits itself to titles about area history and Texana, which are mostly sold within the Lone Star State. In this case, company president Lewis F. Fisher says he is printing "Delayed Legacy" for distribution to major booksellers, including stores on military bases all over the world. Fisher knows Netting and he knew Netting's mother.
"It's a wonderful story," he says. "It has a strong San Antonio connection and local appeal, and it has national and international appeal as well."
Netting and his family flew to France for the memorial dedication. They visited the site where his father's plane had gone down, 58 years earlier. Then they went to the Brittany American Cemetery, his father's final resting place.
The members of Netting's family kept journals during their trip. Netting later incorporated some of their thoughts into his book. His daughter, Lesley, recalled not knowing "what to expect" at the grave of her grandfather, one man among more than 4,400 dead.
"I never knew this man, yet there was a link," she wrote. "Cross after cross after cross. I imagine them all there in spirit having a party and I feel a part of it.
"This is such a beautiful place for him, but so far from home. I didn't expect to be so emotional. I felt the need to hug him. But I hugged Dad instead.
"We said our introductions, then we said our goodbyes."
Conrad John Netting IV will sign copies of "Delayed Legacy" at Borders at the Quarry Market on Friday, Veterans Day, beginning at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.delayedlegacy.com.