Lt. Merle G. "Tot" Aunspaugh

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Lt. Merle G. "Tot" Aunspaugh's Geni Profile

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Merle "Tot" Aunspaugh, Lt.

Death: March 02, 1945 (20)
England, UK (plane crash )
Place of Burial: Gothenburg, NE, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of George Hoe Aunspaugh and Lilly (Cross) Aunspaugh
Brother of Ruth (Aunspaugh) Wahlgren; William "Willy" Aunspaugh; Private; Shirley (Aunspaugh) Fochtman and Private

Occupation: P-51 Pilot
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Lt. Merle G. "Tot" Aunspaugh

Reason for crash revealed

Correspondence sheds lights on how Lt. Aunspaugh killed

By Elizabeth Barrett

June 02, 2007

Ruth (Aunspaugh) Wahlgren never learned the details of her little brother’s death until her youngest son began researching what happened that fateful day in 1945.

Although Ruth had copies of correspondence between her son Wesley Wahlgren and World War II veterans who knew Lt. Merle “Tot” Aunspaugh, she wasn’t ready to read about the accident until a week ago.

“I opened the envelopes and read them yesterday,” Ruth said during an interview May 21. “I couldn’t look at them for 60-some years because it tore my family apart.

When her father George died of cancer in 1937 at age 47, he left wife Lily with six children. Six years later, Ruth’s older brother William was listed as missing in action after returning from a bombing mission over Germany in December of 1943.

Tot was killed in Polebrook, England, when “the war was wearing down,” Ruth said.

Less than two years later, Lily Aunspaugh died at age 49 while recovering from emergency surgery. Ruth was then appointed guardian of her three younger sisters.

“Half our family was gone,” she said about the heartbreak she felt at the time.

Before Lily died, Ruth said her mother wanted the remains of both boys returned to the United States for burial in the Aunspaugh family plot in Gothenburg City Cemetery.

Although William’s body was never recovered when the B-17 he navigated crashed into the English Channel, Tot was buried in the Cambridge Cemetery in England.

Newly married to Harry Wahlgren, the task of bringing her brother’s body back fell upon Ruth.

She remembers how it was delivered by train—Tot’s casket encased in a big wooden box.

In a Dec. 23, 1948, issue of The Times, a full-page ad shows photographs of Tot and William and the dates of their deaths.

“Gothenburg pauses in reverent respect as this soldier hero comes home from the war to rest in his own native land,” the ad reads. “Two brothers, members of the Army Air Corps, who made the supreme sacrifice.”

After the war ended, Ruth said most of the community showed up for a memorial service for her brothers who were killed while serving their country, noting that Walter and Lester Heidebrink were two other Gothenburg brothers who died while in the military during WWII.

Story image 2

Tot in a plane during training.

Of her two brothers, Tot—who was four years younger than Ruth—was the animated one, the flamboyant young man who loved cars, planes, his family and girls.

While attending Nebraska State Teachers College in Kearney, he was accepted into the Air Force and sent to finish school at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Corps once he completed pilot’s training on May 23, 1944, and was assigned to fly the P-51 Mustang—a single-seat fighting plane.

“Tot loved that little P-51 and not everyone got to fly them,” Ruth said with a laugh. “He told me he’d marry her if it was possible.”

Tot also liked flying low on strafing missions, she said, and then shooting back up into the sky.

Four months after arriving in England, Ruth’s second brother was dead.

Although his obituary says Tot was killed March 2 “when his plane crashed while on a mission,” Ruth now knows more about the accident.

She said she’s learned more about her brother, a member of the 368th fighter squadron of the 359th fighter group, and the accident.

“He was flying with another pilot who was in another plane that day and they were both being daredevils,” Ruth said.

Apparently Tot and Lt. Leon Levitt had flown to a base in Polebrook, England, where they ate lunch and then were to fly a practice gunnery mission.

According to an account in Mustangs and Unicorns: A History of the 359th FG,” Lt. Leon Levitt and Merle Aunspaugh...take off behind bombers.

“At 1307, Levitt and Aunspaugh climb to 2,000' and turn back toward Polebrook from four miles out to make a simulated strafing attack on the base. As he drops down, Levitt checks his wingman’s position, before reaching the field and pulls up to 1,500' on the far side.

Story image 3

Tot flew P-51s in World War II.

“Levitt then makes a quarter circuit of the field and makes a second pass, before calling his wingman. Receiving no reply, he then notices smoke rising from the woods north of the base. Aunspaugh had struck a tree and died in the resulting crash...”

After the crash, Levitt said he wasn’t allowed to go near the crash even though Tot was a good friend.

An eyewitness on the base, in a letter seeking information about Tot, said the “pilot’s plane hit a tree ripping off one of its wings. The plane continued on and fell into a wooded area, across from my barracks.”

Ruth said somehow Levitt ended up with the watch and goggles Tot was wearing during the crash.

About the goggles, he said: “Just as I was ready to taxi out from Polebrook, a guy jumped up on the wing and handed me his goggles. I still have them in an old footlocker somewhere...”

Ruth said someone also saw Tot getting ready to eject after the crash but the plane exploded.

“I think he was killed instantly,” she said.

In the memorial book from Tot’s funeral, hidden amongst condolence cards and newspaper clippings, is a letter from the mayor of New York City dated Jan. 3, 1949. Written to Mrs. Wahlgren, it says:

“As Mayor of the City of New York, and on behalf of the citizens of this city, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the family of 2nd Lt. Merle G. Aunspaugh, who so honorably gave his life that others might enjoy peace and freedom.

“I trust and pray that his sacrifice will not have been in vain.”

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Lt. Merle G. "Tot" Aunspaugh's Timeline

April 20, 1924
March 2, 1945
Age 20
England, UK
Gothenburg Cemetery, Gothenburg, NE, United States