Americans Who Enlisted in the British Navy to Fight Hitler... what do we know?

From out of a research job I had this summer, I got curious.

One of the bigger trial attorneys here in Massachusetts, a larger-than-life character almost, was a guy by the name of William Perkins Homans.

He helped develop the “battered spouse defense” in MA, and he defended Bobby Joe Leaster for shooting a cop in broad daylight in a bar, among other cases.

Anyway, my job was to research his trial history, and, lurid as it was, one thing nagged at me about the man himself.

He had gone over to Britain and enlisted in the British Navy in order to fight the Germans in WWII. There is a bit of a legend going around that he had gone on a Hitler Youth-sponsored propaganda trip to Germany as a younger man and had gotten the exact opposite reaction that his sponsors intended.

Normally, my google-fu is strong; however, I’m drawing a lot of blanks here. There are, of course records of his enlistment and a memorial or two, but that’s doing very little to satisfy my curiosity, in fact, quite the opposite.
Can anyone tell me where to start looking about these Americans in general and Homans in particular? Americans have done this sort of thing before, but the job got me feeling a certain affinity for Homans and I’m curious about the man.
Anything the Dope can do to help, I’d be more than grateful.

FWIW, there’s a new history out [The Few: The American “Knights of the Air” Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain, by Alex Kershaw] on the American pilots who volunteered in the RAF and fought in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, while the U.S.'s Neutrality Laws were still in effect. In doing so, these men were fugitives from American law and could not return without risking arrest.

The Battle of Britain was Britain’s most desperate hour, and there was a critical shortage of pilots. This handful of Americans (there were eight in the RAF), alongside many others from other nations (some 510 in all, with a fatality rate exceeding one in four), helped Britain repulse a determined, months-long Luftwaffe bombardment in that fateful summer of 1940. Over the course of the war, more Americans – 244 in all – would constitute these “Eagle” Squadrons. But only eight Americans fought early on, in the Battle of Britain. As for how many of “the few” survived the war, I’m putting that in a spoiler box:

Only one; he died in 2002.

He had some rather prominent (and well-documented) family members and ancestors, so finding information on his family is very easy. I have some of the same ancestors.

If you do a google book search of “john homans” “rebecca gray”, you will get some results that will start you on the ancestor trail. It’s the same family.

If you are in Boston, you may want to spend some time at the NEHGS library. They charge a $15 fee for non-members to use their collection. If you are in NYC, the NYGBS library at 58th & Park charges a $10 fee for non-members to use their collection. I have a serious genealogy habit so I have memberships everywhere.

William’s father was William Sr (b 1887 at 161 Beacon St d 1970). William Jr’s mother was Edith Walcott Parkman. I believe she was the daughter of Boston banker, lawyer and legislator Henry Parkman and Miss Mary Parker. If these weren’t her parents, they are still related to the family in some way. Her uncle was Judge Charles Parker of the NJ Supreme Court. I believe she died sometime between 1945 and 1951. William Jr’s aunt was Mary Peabody, the civil rights activist. William Sr. may have been married more than once because I have seen three different given names for his wife. I haven’t ever bothered to sit down and sort that out.

Also, William Jr’s aunt or great-aunt was co-chairman of the Mercy Ships for Children, which evacuated British children from war zones. And she was on an Aid the Allies committee.

William Sr. was the son of the surgeon John Homans (b abt 1836 d 02/07/1903 at home on 164 Beacon St - this house was in the family for ages) and Helen Perkins (b abt 1846). Helen and John were married 12/04/1872. Helen had a lot of politicians in her family.

John’s parents were surgeon (again) John Homans (b 1793 d 1868) and Caroline Walker (b abt 1797 d 1867). Caroline was the daughter of Dudley Walker, a prominent lawyer of the day. John and Caroline were married in 1816. There is a 20 year gap before he was born, but I have seen the original handwritten entry for his death registration and his parents are listed as Caroline Walker and John Homans.

John’s parents were John Homans (b 1753 d 1800) and Sarah Dalton. John and Sarah were married in 1785.

Now this is where the confusion comes in. Most of these John’s were surgeons as were their brothers and cousins and so forth. Many of these brothers and cousins also named their sons John, and almost everyone went to Harvard and became a surgeon. It’s a genealogical nightmare. To compound the situation, if a child named John or George or whatever died, many times the next child would be named after the deceased child. That combined with a dutch naming system and loads of children from more than one wife makes for a lot ???'s. This John’s parents were either surgeon John Homans and widow Rebecca Gray or surgeon John Homans and his second wife Elizabeth Alden. This Elizabeth Alden was 5 generations down fom John Alden of Mayflower fame. A lot of cites for both and I haven’t had time to figure it out.

The Homans medical chair at Harvard is named for … a Homans.

I don’t want to re-invent the wheel and tell you things you may already know, so briefly:

From his obituary in the Boston Globe:

He served in the Royal Navy during World War II in the Italian theatre. He transferred to the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served in the Pacific as an officer.

He was a general counsel for the Navy and the Export-Import Bank in Washington for three years before returning to Boston to practice law.

Former husband of Ann (Beecher) and Elizabeth (Pattee), he is survived by two sons, William Perkins III of Nashoba, Okla., and Peter Parkman of Belmont; two daughters, Penelope Lincoln of New Haven, Conn., and Elizabeth Greenleaf Homans McKenna of Phoenix; a stepdaughter, Ana Abigail Ionnitiu of Arlington, Va.; a stepson, Nicholas Lincoln Ionnitiu of West Tisbury; a sister, Frances H. Berges of Berkeley, Calif.; two brothers, Wayne of Darien, Conn., and James of Canton; and five grandchildren.

From The New York Times:

During a summer trip to Germany in 1938, Mr. Homans became so distressed at anti-semitism in Germany that by the time the United States entered WWII in December 1941 he had already joined the fight. As soon as he graduated from Harvard in June 1941, he joined the Royal Navy (but only because, at 6 feet 4 inches tall, he was too tall for the Royal Air Force). He later transferred to the American Navy.