His story is finally discovered and told
On Memorial Day, 2017, American Legion member Mike Phennicie was looking at the names on the veterans memorial in Cloverdale. Phennicie noticed a tile with the name of William Potter who was killed in action on June 10, 1944 over Romania. It was then that he came to the realization that he was in possession of a 48-star flag and two World War II medals that were engraved with the name of William Potter.
William “Billy” Potter was one of the 17 graduates of the class of 1939 at Cloverdale High School. As a young man he loved playing baseball and even participated in a comedy play, “All at Sea,” during his junior year in high school. Potter was brought up helping his father Christo Potter at Potter’s Coffee Shop at 219 N. Cloverdale Blvd. The location of the coffee shop is currently one of the oldest buildings in Cloverdale. It was once the location of several restaurants, jewelry store, the Cloverdale Reveille and Low Knob Press and is currently home to Bolt Fabric + Home.
After graduating from high school, Potter attended San Mateo and Santa Rosa junior colleges. With the advent of war, he went to Nevada to a government-approved flying school where he learned to fly airplanes. In 1943, once completing the course, he immediately enlisted in the US Army Air Forces. Potter was assigned to a flight-training squadron at Thunderbird field in Glendale, Ariz. where he learned how to fly the P-38 Lightning fighter known as the forked-tailed devil by German airmen. Once he completed his flight training, he was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and was shipped overseas. Potter was assigned to the 71st Fighter Squadron, 1st Fighter Group that was stationed in North Africa and Italy. In May 1944, Potter was awarded the Air Medal for flying escort for B-17 bombers against oil installations in Ploiesti, Romania.
Frustrated by the minimal effect of high-altitude bombing on the Ploiesti oil refineries, Fifteenth Air Force planners decided to lay a low-level dive-bombing attack on the refineries with 92 P-38 fighters. On June 10, 1944, elements of the 82nd and 1st fighter groups set out to carry out their mission. Mechanical problems caused 21 fighters to abort, leaving a total of 71 fighters. While enroute, much of the 1st Fighter Group was separated from the main force by a navigational error. Part of the 1st Group, 71st Fighter Squadron spotted and attacked six Dornier 217 bombers but underestimated the numbers of Rumanian IAR 80 fighter planes escorting the bombers. Rumanian fighters swooped down on the “Lightnings” and attacked. Although six enemy fighters and two bombers were shot down, the 71st Fighter Squadron lost seven P-38 Lightning fighters.
Second Lieutenant William Potter was among those who were shot down and killed in action. The remaining fighters went on to complete the fateful mission. Already alerted and ready, Ploiesti defense forces laid a smoke screen and a hail of anti-aircraft fire and shot down an additional nine P-38 fighters. This mission to Ploiesti resulted in the heaviest losses ever experienced by the group in a single day during the entire war.
For his actions and sacrifice over Ploiesti, Romania on June 10, 1944, 2nd Lieutenant William L. Potter was posthumously awarded an air medal with two oak leaf clusters and the Purple Heart. William L. Potter is currently buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium. Plot D, Row 13 Grave 13. Billy Potter was 23 years old.
William Potter was originally reported as missing in action but a month later, his father, Christo Potter, was officially notified of his son’s death in July 1944. Christo Potter, who was divorced, brought up a son who meant the world to him. Christo was devastated and very distraught about his son William’s death. When Christo Potter was presented a military burial flag, William’s Air Medal and a Purple Heart inscribed with his son’s name, he did not want to keep them as reminders.
It is believed that Christo completely lost the will to live and went into a deep depression. Christo was eventually committed to the state hospital in Napa and died on Jan. 12, 1952 at the age of 74. Christo Potter is currently buried at the Cloverdale Cemetery.
The flag and medals were given to William “Billy” Potter’s best friend and classmate at CHS, William “Billy” Thompson. Thompson’s daughter, Colleen (Thompson) Bradford, took possession of the items after her father passed away. These medals were then given to American Legion member and US Navy veteran Mike Phennicie, who in turn, donated them to the American Legion Post 293. From seeing the name of William Potter on a tile at the Veteran’s Memorial on Memorial Day last year to this Memorial Day, William Potter’s story has been discovered and now told.
On this Memorial Day, we honor the service and sacrifice of one of seven Cloverdale residents who died in service to our country. William’s service and sacrifice will not be forgotten. We also remember all those veterans who have died and especially those who have their names inscribed on the Veteran’s Memorial wall as killed in action.
Private William Russell Ledford – US Army, WWI
KIA – January 18, 1918, age 25
Sgt. Thomas Ray Zittleman, US Army Air Corps, WWII
KIA – April 11, 1944, age 20
Coxswain Dennis Wade Quinliven, US Navy, WWII
KIA – October 15, 1942, age 19
2nd Lieutenant William L. Potter, US Army, Air Corps
KIA – June 10, 1944, age 23
2nd Lieutenant, Richard Wells, US Army, WWII
KIA – January 9, 1945, age 27
Spec. 4 Stephen Lenn Weight, US Army, Vietnam
KIA – march 21, 1969, age 21
Spec. 4 Duane Roy Baumgardner, US Army, Vietnam
KIA – June 2, 1969, age 20
We also pay tribute to the following American Legion and VFW members who died during the last year:
Antone “Babe” Zanzi