Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Tennessee Hero's Long Voyage Home

What comes to mind when you hear the word hero? Usually, a hero is thought of as an ordinary person who exhibits exceptional qualities, such as courage and sacrifice, in extraordinary circumstances. During one of the deadliest conflicts in U. S. history, Nashville native Sgt. Ben Clay Espey exemplified these virtues.

Portrait of Ben Clay Espey,
in uniform, at age 19, 1943,
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996
Born January 28, 1924, he was the son of Ben King Espey and Nannie Mae Windrow Espey. At the age of 16, Ben Clay received his private pilot’s license. He was a member of McKendree Methodist Church and attended Duncan Preparatory School. After Espey’s graduation from Duncan Preparatory School in 1940, he attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. While attending the University of the South, Espey received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan scholarship and was a member of the Beta Theta chapter of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity, the German club and the golf club.

During his junior year (1942) at the University of the South, Espey volunteered as an aviation cadet and in December of 1942, he was called into active duty in World War II. Espey was stationed for a time in both north Africa and southern Italy. While stationed in Italy, he was the cartoonist for the 15th Air Force’s paper and fashioned the character “Sir Donald McAce.” Espey served in combat service with the 15th Air Force and participated in air offensives over the Balkans, Austria, Germany, Romania, and Italy. He was killed on April 15, 1944, while returning from a bombing mission over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. At the time of his death, Espey worked as a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and was attacked by German fighter planes. Crew members of other aircraft participating in the mission saw Sgt. Espey’s parachute falling toward the front of his plane. It was thought for a time that he might have survived the attack and was listed as missing in action.

On May 20, 1944, the War Department notified Espey’s parents that he had actually been killed during the confrontation with the German fighter planes. His remains were found and returned to Tennessee in 1950, almost six years after his death. Espey’s funeral and burial took place on March 23, 1950. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville, Tennessee.

Espey truly deserves the title of hero and received several medals and honors including the Air Corps Citation, the Purple Heart, a Presidential Citation, and the Air Medal. Items related to Ben Clay Espey’s life may be found in the Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996, at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Objects of note include correspondence, photographs, memorial items, newspaper clippings, a Sunday School certificate, and some of Espey’s original drawings.

"Espey Floop Special," color drawing by Ben Clay Espey depicting an aircraft, Nashville, Tennessee, ca. 1941.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

World War II 15th Army Air Force Winged Star Bullion patch that has the number 15 above a winged star, believed to have belonged to Ben Clay Espey, ca. 1939-1945.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996

Cartoon type drawing by Ben Clay Espey depicting a plane, undated.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996


Title Page of Ben Clay Espey's Funeral Register, College Grove, Tennessee, March 23, 1950.
Balch Family Papers, 1780-1996


The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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