Madera County Sheriff William O. Justice wore his badge for 20 years — from 1935 to 1955. During that time, he wrestled with some pretty thorny issues. An influx of striking cotton pickers caused a riot under his watch. Four Madera policemen somehow lost their guns to four crooks, and if that wasn’t enough, a United States Senator conducted an investigation of his law enforcement tactics in Madera County.
No doubt about it, Sheriff Justice earned his money, but all of those headaches that came with his job couldn’t hold a candle to the heartache he suffered during World War II. Through a tragic twist of fate, he lost his son, Carroll Justice, in an act of unbelievable self-sacrifice.
The younger Justice had made his lawman father proud at every stage in his short life. He was a standout student at Eastin School and Madera High School, from which he graduated in 1935. His extra-curricular activities were wholesome and lively, and when he decided to attend Asbury College, the local Methodist Church gave him a grand sendoff.
Then came the war. Carroll was drafted, and the Army turned him into a bomber pilot. In April 1944, he received his wings and a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, and on June 5, 1944, he came home on leave to visit his parents. It was the last time they would see him. The army needed him as a bomber pilot in the Far East.
For almost a year, the Justice family held on to hope. With each passing day, they tried to go on about their lives, praying all the time for Carroll’s safe return. Then their world began to shake. On March 13, 1945, they received a telegram telling them that their son was missing in action. He had been based in the Philippines, and on February 18 Carroll was reported missing in action after a bombing mission over Formosa.
On April 26, 1945, Sheriff Justice and his wife Bonnie got another message that ripped away all hope. The Army notified them that Carroll had been awarded the air medal for meritorious service, but it was being given posthumously.
The grieving Justice family was plunged into deeper despair by the fact that no one knew what had happened to his body.
They couldn’t even give him a funeral. Then came the announcement that Carroll was being awarded the Silver Star, and along with that news came the details of their son’s gallantry.
His plane had been on a mission over Takao, Southern Formosa. He was the co-pilot, and the pilot was Major Milton J. Porter. As the plane approached its target, Carroll left his seat to go to the rear of the plane behind the bomb bay, where he could accurately spot the bomb bursts as they dropped their load.
With Carroll stretched out on the floor of the plane, heavy anti-aircraft fire opened up with an intense barrage. Justice’s plane received a direct hit in the number one engine. The pilot temporarily lost control, and the craft peeled off to the left and rapidly dropped 1,000 feet before he could release his bombs and regain control.
The pilot stabilized the plane, but the number one engine, which had been feathered, was on fire. At that point, Carroll made a life-threatening discovery and a life-ending decision. The tail gunner had taken his parachute off, and it had been sucked out of the plane through the open camera hatch. Knowing that everyone on the plane was in imminent peril, Carroll took his own parachute off and left it for the tail gunner while he went forward to get another chute. He refused to bail out and leave the tail gunner without a parachute.
Just as Justice reached the nose section, the main wing tanks caught fire and exploded. The left wing broke off, and the plane went into an uncontrolled spin until it crashed into the ground killing everyone.
The Army could give the family no hope of recovering Carroll Justice’s remains, so the community held a memorial service at the Methodist Church, and Sheriff Justice and his family tried to go on with their lives.
Then the unexpected happened. Word came that all of the remains of Carroll Justice’s crew had been recovered. They were being sent back to the United States for burial, so the family made ready to take a trip. On Aug. 18, 1949, they traveled to Keokuk, Iowa. The Army had decided to bury Carroll and his comrades in a common grave in the National Cemetery at Keokuk, and the Justices were there to say a final goodbye.
Sheriff Justice returned to his job as the county’s top lawman and served five more years. In 1954, he was defeated for reelection by Marlin Young.
Sheriff Justice died in 1965. He was Madera County’s 8th Sheriff. He served five terms — 20 years. He is remembered for serving as sheriff longer than anyone before him or since. He is also remembered for the sacrifice his son made so that he could help secure liberty and justice for all.
Originally published in the Madera Tribune