Sunday, November 11, 2012

Family Veterans

Veterans Day has always been a special day in my family. Like most baby boomers’ families mine was peppered by veterans from “the Greatest Generation” who served in either Europe or the Pacific during the Second World War. These heroic men and women did not often talk of their service. They spoke of their buddies who served with them and some of the things they did during the war. But over the years, we eventually came to the realization that the tales of friends were actually shared adventures, they had to be there enduring the street to street fighting in the cities of Italy with Patton, France with Bradley and Ike or enduring the kamikaze attacks in the South Pacific.

I remember sitting with one uncle at a family gathering in the 60s when he loosened up a little and described his time with Patton and the desert fighting in North Africa followed by the invasion of Italy. He described almost two different wars where the fighting was really different. Desert warfare was vast and sweeping, quickly moving across the desert to flank the enemy and the action was pretty impersonal. When they crossed the Mediterranean and invaded Italy, the war experience for them was much more intimate and personal; fighting building to burned out building in cold and rain as opposed to the heat and dryness of the Sahara. These guys had to be very versatile and their day to day experience was very different on the two continents. After my uncle died, I came into possession of several albums of photographs that he took during the war. The thing that struck me was how personal these photos were of him and his war buddies.

One of my uncles was in the Army Air Corps. He joined the Army late in the war, trained to be a tail gunner in a B-29 and was in the process of deploying to Europe when the war ended. He too had many pictures of the training and the deployment. My uncle arrived in Europe too late to fly actual combat missions, which was pretty lucky for him and our family because the chances of flying your 50 missions and returning safely were not good.

During the late 70s, I had the distinct pleasure of flying with an older flight student who was picking up flying again 30 years after he was a B-24 pilot during the war. He was part of the team that developed skip-bombing, a technique used to attack bridges and the walls of fortified buildings. He needed to refresh his flying skills, but I learned more about flying from him as he did from me. His basic skills were as strong as when he was in Europe and most of what I taught him was about the new navigational aids and instruments that were developed after the war. But he taught me some of the amazing things that they did in the war. We would pick out a farmer’s fence at the edge of a field and he showed me how to approach from an angle, wig-wagging to avoid the Triple-A fire then at the last minute, line up at a right angle to the target and make the run, often at altitudes of 50 to 100 feet to make the bomb run, then a sharp pull out to avoid the blast as the bomb hit the target. As amazing as that maneuver was in a Cherokee 140 it had to be awesome in a B-24!

A couple of my uncles served in the South Pacific, one on an aircraft carrier and the other in the Sea-Bees. The See-Bees or Construction Battalions amazed me. These guys built runways across the pacific islands for the Army Air Corps bombers that followed them. The thing that made their jobs more interesting and dangerous was that the islands were not completely liberated when they did their work. More than once, my uncle had to bail off his road grader as he came under sniper fire from the enemy hiding in the nearby forest. He had several close encounters where the grader was actually struck by rifle fire while he was working. He occasionally joked about the sound of a round rattling around the blade. Sometimes they had to run for cover as enemy aircraft bombed the runways even as they worked on them. My uncle had more than one road grader shot out from under him in New Guinea and New Zealand.

My uncle who served on aircraft carriers wound up making the Navy a career retiring after 30 years as a Mustang Lieutenant. He had tales about clearing crashed kamikaze airplanes off the carrier decks in the heat of battle with the sound of the fleet’s anti-aircraft batteries mixed with the scream of aircraft engines from both sides engaged in aerial combat overhead. Once the air battle was over, they still had to get the deck cleared and ready for the returning aircraft who had nowhere else to land. He and I both had the honor of walking while on active duty across the deck of the USS Saratoga shown here. Of course there were a few years between his time and mine.

My family’s story includes my own generation, we all served in the Navy and the Sea-Bees during the Vietnam War and even today the next generation served in the Balkans and Southwest Asia. Some of us saw combat, others like me were lucky enough not to go into battle. So this Veteran’s Day don’t ask about their experiences, they may not be ready to share them. Just thank them for their service. Oh MY!

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