Today is Veteran's day, and in honor of all those who have served our country, here is a re-post about one of our silent heroes:
I had an extraordinarily moving experience on election day, November, 2....I met and shared about two hours of special time with one of America's "quiet heroes" of World War II. Now, I had planned to share this with you on Veterans Day, as I didn't want this to get caught up in all the election news, but life got in the way and I just got the chance to recapture the story. Also, this will be a longish post, as I want to be sure to try to put the event in proper context and be sure that you capture the "feel" and emotions that were there on that day. So here goes:
November 2, 2004 was a very special day for me, and for a lot of reasons. You see, I had been born on election day, 1946. My Father, one of the very few Republicans in North Carolina at the time, was doing his duty as a poll watcher when I was born. Indeed, I have vivid memories of my Dad " taking on" my Mom's male family members ( Granddad and three Uncles who lived nearby ) in heated political debates almost every Sunday at my grandparents house. As they were the " I'd vote for a donkey before I'd vote Republican" types, my Dad had his hands full. But watching him stand up for what he believed taught me a valuable lesson that paid off many times in later life.
Another reason that November 2 was going to be special for me was that I was going to actually fly in a B-17 bomber for the first time.....the result of an article in the Charleston newspaper that my eye happened upon a couple of weeks earlier. Now my Dad had served in the US Army Air Corps during WWII as a radio operator helping train B-24 crews in Liberal Kansas. Obviously, he was nowhere near the front lines, as he was too skinny ( 129 pounds, 6' 2" ), but nevertheless, I grew up with "tall tales" of WWII, including how Dad personally killed Hitler ( he let us know they were "fish stories" later ). And of course, kids of my era were steeped in WWII lore...we knew every plane on sight, from P-39 Air Cobra's to the mighty B-17 Flying Fortress.
Fast forward to the mid-90's and me on a small Hobie Cat sailboat about a quarter mile off the Isle of Palms, SC. Hearing an unusual airplane motor sound, I scanned the horizon until I found the source....a B-17 and a B-24 flying literally wing-tip to wing-tip at about 100 feet....on the deck! The sound and sight of those two historical war birds as they roared directly over my head amazed me. If that was the sound of only two planes, what must the 1000 plane raids of WWII been like!
The fact that my Dad had died in 2000, coupled with all of the above, made my taking a B-17 flight a "moral imperative" ( would have preferred a B-24, but hey, a B-17 would be the next best thing ). As the folks who operated the plane ( the Experimental Aircraft Association ), were only going to be in town for two days, with two flights per day ( and only 8 passengers per flight ), I was one of the first to sign up and the first one there on that perfectly clear and sunny flying day. My plan was too fulfill this boyhood dream in the morning, and vote on the way home.
As I had about an hour to kill before flight time, I took lots of photos and talked to the crewmen and other members of the EEA as the other passengers and onlookers arrived. One group in particular caught my eye...an elderly gentleman, along with what looked to be his wife, son, grandkids and other family members. As all the people around him seemed to be peppering him with questions, I decided to find out more. During a lull, I approached one younger man in the group ( he turned out to be the son of the elderly man ) and asked what was going on. He informed me that he and the entire family had brought his Dad here for his surprise birthday present....his first flight on a B-17 since he served on them during WWII, where he had flown 30 missions with the Eight Air Force.
Those of you who are not familiar with the history of daytime bombing by the Eight Air Force probably can't understand how shocked I was at what the son had said. Some may remember the movie "Memphis Belle", which focused on the first B-17 crew to fly 25 missions over Nazi-held Europe....an amazing feat. To put it in perspective, Eight Air Force losses in a single mission during 1943 ( before long-range fighters were available to escort the Bombers all the way to the targets) ranged as high a 12% of all planes on a single mission! At one point in 1943, it became statistically impossible for a bomber crewman to survive 25 missions. These rates came down as fighter escort improved , but remained high throughout the war. One of every four Eight Air Force bomber crewmen were lost....the highest casualty rate of any major Allied force during WWII.
So, when I heard "30 missions"...my interest was more than peaked. I resolved to try and find out this old warrior's story. As luck would have it, he and I were the first to board the 9:30 am flight and were seated in two of the three seats in the radio operators area ( there were five more seats in the waist gun section )...and mine was the actual radio operators seat. At this point, I'm thinking WOW! Is this perfect or what?! Here I am sitting in the radio operators seat of a B-17....my Dad has to be smiling!
While others were getting settled. I introduced myself to the mid-70's looking gentleman, who turned out to be Mr. Robert May. He was very soft-spoken, almost a little shy and it took a few minutes of conversation about why I was here to get him to open up ( maybe the fact that I have a ponytail was a factor )...but once that hurdle was overcome, over the course of the flight he gradually painted a story of his experiences in WWII....a story that he seemed to think was "no big deal"...but to me was a living testimony to all the "quiet heroes" of WWII.
One of the first things he did was correct what his son said...it wasn't 30 missions in B-17's; it was 24 missions in B-17's and 6 in B-24's. He also shared the fact he had been based at Eye, England for most of the time.
I cannot possibly describe the anticipation and excitement as the engines were started and revved up...you simply had to be there! The roar of the engines was staggering, but the take-off was surprisingly quick and took way less runway than I anticipated ( of course it didn't occur to me until later that we had no bomb weight to contend with ). Anyway, as we leveled off, we were paired up to visit various parts of the aircraft, as space were very tight. Once again, luck was on my side...I was paired with Mr. May! We visited every station of the aircraft except the ball and tail gunner turrets, which were off limits. IMHO, the absolutely most impressive station was the bombardier's seat, at the nose of the plane. You had the feeling of hanging off in space since you were surrounded by 360 degrees of Plexiglas. Wow! talk about feeling vulnerable!
It would take too long to describe all the things that we talked about during that flight ( luckily I captured some on a camcorder ), but he described everything from the moments of extreme boredom and cold ( down to -56 degrees, but they had heated suits that they plugged into the aircraft ), to those of extreme anxiety... as enemy fighters and flack pounded his plane..... on the long 8-10 hour flights.
Some of the funnier moments came when he shared how much smaller and more fragile the plane seemed than when he was 20 years old and "bulletproof", as well as the procedure for "defecating", if one couldn't " hold it" for the duration of the flight ( he was much too much the gentleman to use the S- word )......they simply "went" in the bomb bay and added that to the 3000 pound payload they dropped on the Nazi's!!! ( See! Most good solutions ARE simple! ).
More sober moments came when he told how the design of the ball gun turret did not allow enough room for the gunners parachute....so it had to be placed up outside the turret, in hopes that if something bad happened, the gunner could get to it in time. Mr. May said that the highest mortality rate positions were for ball and tail gunners.
One of the things that impacted me most was to see the way Mr. May visited each area with something approaching a somber reverence that brought tears to my eyes.....and many times to his. He had a somewhat distant look of long-faded memories suddenly being brought into sharp focus....he was mentally transported back to WWII.
Later I asked him whether he or his fellow crew members had ever been wounded. He said that he and his crew had been one of the extremely lucky ones .....over 30 missions and, despite lost engines and tons of bullet holes, the only wound anyone ever suffered was getting shot in the leg. But he began to tear up when he talked of the horrendous losses of the planes....and friends...all around him.
Throughout the entire flight I shared with Mr. May, I was impressed by his modesty, his humbleness and the feeling that he didn't think he had done anything that heroic or special.
Well, to me at least, he represents one of the keys that make America great....the multitude of quiet heroes who interrupt their lives and sacrifice everything for their country, even when the odds are stacked heavily against their personal survival...and then, with no fanfare at all.... go back to their lives as, if they had done nothing special. In my book, the Robert Mays and all like him ( past and present ) are very, very special.
Oh , one last thing! As we left the plane, Mr. May asked me if I had voted yet. Needless to say, my vote that day took on a very special significance.
Income Investor Home Team Fool
( who feels especially blessed to have had the Father that he had... and to have met Mr. Robert May )