Skip Navigation
West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial


Joseph Churchill Maxwell

"Real valor consists not in being insensible to danger; but in being prompt to confront and disarm it."

Sir Walter Scott

Staff Sergeant Joseph Churchill Maxwell was born on January 4, 1921, in Harrison County, West Virginia, where the family resided in the city of Salem. According to U.S. Federal Census records from 1920 and 1930, Joseph was the son of Leemon Bassell and Esta Beulah Cox Maxwell and joined two older sisters, Esta J. (b. 1918) and Ula V. (b. 1919). A year and a half later, the three Maxwell children welcomed twin sisters, Vanessa Mae and Enid M. [Madaline or Madelon] (b. 1922). West Virginia death records show that ten days after the twins' birth, Beulah died of toxemia, leaving the widower Bassell to rear their five children. He soon married Blonda E. Mason of Doddridge County, and eventually Joseph would have two half-brothers, Leemon Mason Maxwell and Lewis Franklin Maxwell.

Joseph attended and graduated from Salem High School, where he played basketball, was in the band, and performed with the school's drama group. He had one year of college at West Virginia University before the war interrupted his education. U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946, indicate that Staff Sergeant Maxwell enlisted in the fledgling Army Air Corps at Baltimore, Maryland, on February 7, 1942. At the time of his registration, he indicated his schooling included four years of high school; he was single, without dependents; and his civilian occupation was in "building transportation equipment (except automobiles and aircraft)." He was assigned to the 364th Bomber Squadron, 305th Bomber Group, Heavy. S/Sgt. Maxwell met his death on Monday, March 8, 1943. The May 26, 1944, Clarksburg Daily Telegram ("Sergt. Maxwell Declared Dead") provides the following account of his death:

L. Bassell Maxwell, of Salem, has been notified by the war department that his son, Staff Sergt. Joseph Churchill Maxwell, 23, has been listed as dead since March 9, 1944. [A soldier missing more than a year plus a day was listed as dead, corroborating March 8, 1943, as his date of death.]

Sergt. Maxwell previously was listed as missing in action since March 8, 1943. He had participated in at least seventeen bombing missions over German occupied Europe. On the day he failed to return to his base, Maxwell and the bomber crew had been on a bombing mission over France and on their return they submerged in the English channel, ten miles off the coast of Selsey Bill, England. There were no survivors.

An aerial engineer and top turret gunner on a B-17 bomber, "Carter and His Little Pills," named for the captain, Joe Carter, of Lawton, Ill., Sergt. Maxwell was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air medal with Three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters [other sources say two] and the Order of the Purple Heart.

The bomber crew of which Maxwell was a member, completed their aerial training in the States and flew their bomber to England October 19, 1942.

Immediately before crashing into the Channel, Sergt. Maxwell or Sergt. Dailey, the ball turret gunner shot down the plane that wrecked them. Both men were shooting at the enemy craft and it is not known which one shot it down.

The Daily Telegram article goes on to say that S/Sgt. Maxwell's father had received letters of commendation on behalf of his son from President Franklin D. Roosevelt; General George Marshall; Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War; and General H. H. "Hap" Arnold.

It is well documented that both Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England and Fuhrer Adolf Hitler of Germany were convinced that ultimately the bombing contingent of their air forces would win the war for their side. After the bombing of London in 1940, Churchill ordered retaliation on Germany, but British bombs could "precision" bomb only in daylight. Without long-range fighter escorts to protect them during day missions, they raided only by night, dropping explosives from high altitudes on industrial areas, and this "indiscriminate bombing" was more likely to result in civilian casualties. When American forces joined the British offensive, it became apparent the two nations had different bombing approaches. According to one account,

The British preferred to fly under the protection of night. Darkness made exact targeting impossible, so "area bombing"-dropping a large number of bombs within a designated area around a target-was used. The Americans, however, were extremely hesitant to participate in an action that might result in civilian casualties. . . . With the heavy armament of the B-17 Flying Fortresses, the [U.S. Army Air Corps] chose to fly during the day for "precision bombing," hitting specific targets, such as factories or transportation hubs, precisely and with minimal damage to the surrounding area. (Century of Flight, "The Bombing Raids of World War Two," Aviation During World War Two, accessed September 18, 2012,

It was into this milieu that S/Sgt. Joseph Maxwell was thrust when his bomber and crew were deployed to England in October 1942. In his short but graphic poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," American poet Randall Jarrell, himself a battle-worn veteran, provides a literary account of the fierceness of the fighting Carter's crew would have faced, leading to the conclusion that the fate of Maxwell and his crewmates was violent but mercifully swift. The poem highlights the particularly vulnerable position of the ball turret gunner. Jarrell's note at the time of its publication states: "A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24 [Maxwell was on a B-17] and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine guns and one man, a short small man. [Maxwell was five-foot-eight and 141 pounds at the time of his enlistment.] When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the foetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. . . ." (Randall Jarrell, "The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner," in Seamus Cooney, ed., A Small Anthology of Poems, accessed September 5, 2013, S/Sgt. Maxwell's fate was either better (he would have been killed instantly when his plane was shot down) or worse (his remains were never recovered) than that of the gunner described in the poem (whose remains were "hosed" out of the turret.

At the time of Joseph's death, his half-brother Leemon was also stationed in England with the Army Air Corps. In addition to the inscription of his name on the West Virginia Veterans Memorial, S/Sgt. Joseph Churchill Maxwell is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.
The Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery include the names of more than 5,000 Americans who were considered Missing in Action or lost or buried at sea from World War II. Photo credit: Warrick Page, courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

The Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery include the names of more than 5,000 Americans who were considered Missing in Action or lost or buried at sea from World War II. Photo credit: Warrick Page, courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
November 2019


Joseph Churchill Maxwell

West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history.

Veterans Memorial Database

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

West Virginia Archives and History

West Virginia Archives and History