The Sky Warriors: In Memoriam

Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day, a time to reflect on those living and dead who have served our country. Our debt of gratitude is great to all of them. I am particularly intrigued by those who took to the skies in the Second World War; that period has always fascinated me. As I write this, I am currently reminded of the intrepid sky warriors of that war by the unusual sounds heard overhead the last few days, the unmistakable heavy drone of multi-engine aircraft periodically flying over the house. When not engaged in something pressing, I more often than not drop what I am doing and run out the front or patio door to gawk once more at what I know to be the source – one of the iconic heavy bombers from the 1940’s. I have been doing this drill for some years, now.

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The Collings Foundation is back in town for several days with it’s “Wings of Freedom” tour, part of an annual pilgrimage across the country. The tour features one of the few flyable examples left in the world of both the mighty B-17 Flying Fortress and the once ubiquitous B-24 Liberator. It is difficult to resist the urge to run outside to see one of these legendary “warbirds” lumbering fairly low over the neighborhood on early approach to the runway at nearby Moffett Field. The foundation, true to its mission, keeps these icons flying (no small task) by touring the country and charging a nominal admission to walk through the aircraft or $400 for a brief ride in one of them.

 Linda and I made the short trip to Moffett Field a few years ago to see these planes up-close and personal. We chose a weekday, early in the morning when there were few other people out and about other than the daily commute. We were rewarded with a leisurely and thought-provoking, self-guided experience clambering around within the bowels of each of these legendary airplanes. Unlike so many typical “airshow experiences” where the sheer press of people in line behind you necessitates a hurried look before quickly moving on, we were able to linger in the bellies of these beasts and truly visualize, to the limited extent possible, what those intrepid flyers must have felt each and every time they clambered aboard their aircraft for yet another dangerous bombing mission.

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For many, it was to be their last. Death came quickly in the skies, usually in the form of German fighter aircraft in the skies over Europe or shrapnel from the deadly flak-shell explosions which enveloped these aircraft as they lumbered to and from their targets. Many a crew was lost when a tail or wing was sheared off by shrapnel. In such a situation, the plane quickly spun wildly out of control as it plunged to earth literally pinning the crew within its confines and rendering their parachutes useless.

 What stories they tell, those who survived the overall experience! I recall quite vividly one evening in the mid-1950’s when a very good friend of my father came one evening to visit. He, like dad, was employed at United Airlines and was working his way up the ladder. They had enrolled together in a calculus night class at San Mateo Junior College some years prior. He happened to be in San Francisco on business and was invited to the house for dinner that evening. At my parent’s urging, he recounted his war experiences during dinner. He was flying a B-24 Liberator on a critical and quite famous bombing mission over German territory. Their target was the German oil supply and the Ploesti oil fields.

 His aircraft was shot down by flak as I recall. He parachuted safely down only to be captured by the Germans and held for a considerable period of time. I cannot recall whether he escaped from the prison camp or was ultimately set free after the war. I was but a young teenager at the time of his visit, but I listened intently to his story and asked some questions about his experiences. As interested as I was, it seemed to me at the time that the Second World War was already ancient history, yet what I was hearing had happened a mere ten years prior – oh, the time-warp of youth. Would that I could talk to him today! He later worked his way up the ranks at United Airlines and became a vice-president stationed in Chicago; alas, we rarely saw him after that.

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Linda and I had the good fortune to meet a volunteer at Moffett Field who, like my dad’s good friend, had plenty of war stories to relate to a gathering throng beneath a wing of the Collings B-24J, Witchcraft, the only one still flying of the original 6,687 J-type aircraft built by Consolidated. He was a bombardier aboard a similar Liberator during the war. You can bet that the appreciative crowd kept him very engaged for the hour-plus we spent listening…and that is how it should be! These flyers, their stories, and their lessons-learned (also known as wisdom and a mature world-view) should be heard, appreciated, and their experiences recorded for future generations. And – just as important – future generations should be encouraged by parents, teachers, and mentors to read these histories and reflect on what such veterans went through. Let us not forget the soldiers and sailors as well; they have their own stories to tell.

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I just heard in the news that the final reunion of the Doolittle flyers has been held this year. Only three or four remain alive and able to travel. The daring early raids on Tokyo were conducted by Jimmy Doolittle and his men flying medium-range B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier in April, 1942 – an unheard-of feat. Although these brave flyers are almost all gone, their stories will live on. Let us not forget such momentous history. 

Have a relaxing and meaningful Memorial Day weekend!

 As a postscript for those interested, Linda has alerted me to a currently best-selling book titled Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who went down in a B-24 Liberator over the Pacific and was held prisoner by the Japanese. Linda has read it and raved about it as has everyone else, apparently. The aviation aspect is only a portion of the total story of this amazing man who still lives in Southern California. So many stories surface in that one life that it is hard to believe, even though they are verified and well documented. I plan to read it.

Memphis Belle Crew]

For you aviation fans and for anyone with an interest in the history, there is a brief documentary (in color) made by the government during the war about the famous B-17,  Memphis Belle – not to be confused with the Hollywood movie of the same name. This one is actual footage filmed in color during her crew’s last (and successful) bombing mission over Germany. Twenty-five such missions got you a ticket home from the war, and this is the documentary story of the B-17 that brought her crew safely back each time. Ride along on that last mission, and you will begin to understand what it was like! I highly recommend it. If you have difficulty finding this, let me know by leaving a reply (comment). I can tell you where I ordered my DVD copy.

 As always, I have no connection with any product which I endorse (other than my own book). My recommendations are based strictly on merit for the benefit of you, the readers.

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