Isabella and Joseph Posa hold a portrait of their son, unaware that he died nearly three years ago.
This article is from a 1963 edition of LIFE Magazine.
Poignant tissue of white lies
by Richard Stolley
At solemn ceremonies on the parade ground at Edwards Air Force Base in California next month, the late Major Eugene E. Posa will be awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. Normally a dead hero’s family gathers for such an occasion. In Major Posa‘s case, his pretty widow, Betty, and his two daughters, Cathy, 14, and Vicki, 13, will be there. But Joseph and Isabella Posa, his mother and father, who followed his distinguished Air Force career with great pride, will not. The Posas do not know that their son has been dead for more than 2 1/2 years. They do not know because of a well-intentioned conspiracy which has gone to incredible lengths to deceive the elderly couple.
Major Posa, a specialist in electronic detection equipment, was one of six airmen aboard a U.S. Air Force RB-47 reconnaissance plane, flying from a temporary duty base in England, when it was shot down by a Russian fighter over the Barents Sea north of the port of Archangel in July of 1960. Two of his crewmates were plucked alive from the icy waters by the Russians and imprisoned: the body of a third was found floating in the water. After a short time Posa and the two others were officially declared missing. As next of kin, his wife Betty received the notification from the Defense Department through the Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas, where Posa had been permanently based. And she sorrowfully relayed the news to Gene’s older brother, Philip. Despite his grief, Philip – a bachelor – made a quick, calculated decision: he would keep the tragic news from his parents, with whom he lived (and still lives) in a suburb of Los Angeles.
Philip Posa wanted to protect his parents from the truth.
Two things determined Philip Posa on such a course. He believed that knowledge of his younger brother’s death would probably shorten the lives of his parents, both in their 80s. And he knew, furthermore, that he could get away with it. Joseph Posa emigrated to California from ltaly 60 years ago, his wife 10 years later. Once a musician, Joseph and his wife now live in retirement, supported by Philip. They understand and speak English only haltingly – Italian is the language they normally use at home. They cannot read U.S. magazines or newspapers, and they rarely listen to the radio or watch TV. Their only link to the world outside their little home is their surviving son, Philip. So complete is their reliance that Philip knew he could control completely what they did or did not learn about Gene. He decided that his parents should continue to believe Gene was still alive and flying in the service of the country they had adopted.
Having made his decision, Philip was faced immediately with the problem of making the deception credible – and keeping it so. Betty had to make her in-laws believe that she and Gene and their two daughters were still living in Topeka, although in fact-within two months after the plane went down – she moved to Visalia, Calif., less than 200 miles from the Posas, to be with her own parents. In the months that followed, Betty spent a good deal of money and a great many hours on the phone to Mrs. Posa, chatting about her life "in Topeka" and how the two grandchildren were getting along. Every so often, Mrs. Posa would ask, "Have you heard from Gene?" And the best she could muster for an answer was a shaky, "No, not lately."
She was not subjected to more questions about Gene because Mr. and Mrs. Posa were "hearing" from their flier son regularly every week. Every Saturday morning, without fail, a letter from Gene arrived at their home.
This was another part of Philip’s plan. At odd moments during the week, Philip would write a letter from Gene. On Saturdays he would make a point of meeting the mailman at the door to collect the mail. Into the day‘s delivery he would slip an old, carefully preserved envelope from one of the letters Gene had writ- ten from England before he died. The appropriate stamps and military post- marks were enough to deceive his parents. Then he would read to them the letter that appeared to have come from the envelope.
He did his sad job well. He made his brother’s letters warm and chatty – full of Gene’s troubles with his golf game, homey details about life at the air base in England, his week- ends in London and the hotel he liked to stay in, and of training flights he had made. The elder Posas were particularly pleased by Gene’s description of having flown over Italy.
To complete the deception, every Sunday night Philip sat down in front of his parents and wrote a letter to his brother, a letter which he discarded next morning on his way to work.
As the deception took firm root, many people conspired to make it a success. The Posas’ neighbors and the children who were old enough to understand what had happened never let on. On the first Christmas after Gene’s death, a newspaper reporter from Los Angeles turned up to write a story about the parents of the missing flier. When he learned from Philip what was going on, he pretended to them that he was doing a story on the parents of many servicemen overseas.
The elder Posas proudly showed him a gift from Gene lying under the tree – bought and gaily wrapped by Philip. But with the passage of time, the burden of maintaining the fiction of Gene’s existence in England became more and more difficult. Betty Posa moved again – to a home in the same suburb where Philip and her mother- and father-in-law lived. Years before, she and Gene had bought it to be near his parents and now she mustered the courage to return to it alone. But having to go on living the deception at such close range put a severe strain on her and her two daughters. They knew what had happened to their father and had to be on guard constantly not to let anything slip to their grandparents. For the children’s sake, Betty wished it would end. "I would have broken the news gently to the old folks at the beginning," she said. "But then it became far, far too late to tell them anything. It went on too long for that."
Finally she explained to them that she had returned to California because Gene had been assigned to England for "two or three more years." Old Mrs. Posa took the news unsuspectingly and didn’t push for details; she was still hearing from her son once a week.
Then, last fall, the letters stopped coming. Philip Posa was sent a book by William L. White which recounted in detail the story of the RB-47 incident and the imprisonment in Russia of the two survivors. As he read, he realized how he could soften the deception and still protect his parents.
Gently, he told them the bad news. Gene’s plane had had trouble, he said, and he had been taken prisoner by the Russians. He was alive and healthy, Philip continued, but he would not be able to send any more letters for a long time. Concerned over the crash but relieved to know that their son was all right, the old couple accepted the story without question. The situation was further simplified when Betty moved for a third time, back to live with her own parents.
And when the Air Force decided recently to honor the flier who died in the icy Barents Sea two and a half years ago, that was how matters in the Posa household rested. And that is how they will remain, and why the elder Posas will miss the solemn ceremony.
On chilly winter evenings now, Philip and his mother and father enjoy a bit of wine with dinner. They talk often about Gene. Occasionally Mrs. Posa’s glance travels to Gene‘s photograph on the piano and she asks her older son, "What do you think he’s doing?
And Philip’s answer invariably is: "He’s okay, mama. Pretty soon he’ll be back home."
From the book The Invisible Force, written in 2005:
"(Philip) went to great lengths to delay their knowledge of the incident. Despite his effort, the father received the bad news when a fellow at the grocery store expressed sympathy for Gene’s disappearance. As Philip had feared his parents soon grew ill and died." …Grieving over the loss of his brother and the circumstances under which the parents became aware of the tragedy, Philip committed suicide.
– Poignant tissue of white lies by Richard Stolley, Life Magazine, Feb 22, 1963>>
– The Invisible Force by Ed Parker, Google Books>>