Two years ago this week I was kept spellbound by a small cadre of airmen from the 381st Bomb Group of the Mighty Eighth Air Force who served our nation with incredible heroism during WWII. The occasion was the annual reunion of this rapidly dwindling number of men who as “boys”, just out of their teens, bravely flew 297 B-17 bombing missions over Europe from January of 1943 until the conclusion of the War in May of 1945. The focus of the bombing was the industrial facilities that made it possible for Hitler to wage war on the world.
This year, I again attended the reunion of this group. It was held in Colorado Springs, Colorado this year…. fitting as this is the home of the U.S. Air Force Academy. We spent a full day there on Saturday. The day included a memorial service honoring both the living and the dead from the Eighth Air Force from WW2. Also, as we stood on the steps of the AF Chapel, a vintage B-17, “Texas Raiders” did a fly over. It was chilling!
During the annual reunion weekend this year I reflected on the men I met in earlier years, many of whom were in attendance again. A few, however, had passed away. I was privileged to listen to their stories, some I had heard before…some were new. These recollections were now related without emotion but clearly revealing committed resolve, derived from an intense desire and duty to protect our freedom. And protect us they did! I was amazed at their uncanny recollection of details … struck by their pervasive humility…and smitten by their winsome gentility…each of which seem uncharacteristic of men who have lived an average of 9 decades and who suffered so much in protecting the freedom that we have enjoyed.
Three years ago I, like most of U.S. citizens, didn’t know this group existed. The Uncle, for whom I was named, died in a bombing run over Mannheim, Germany on December 11, 1944. Although only 4 when he died, I remember him lovingly and vividly. He had a daughter, born 6 weeks after his untimely death whom I have always viewed as my sister. Organizing her mother’s belongings after her recent stroke at age 90, brought forth hundreds of letters between her and my Uncle. They revealed much about his life during 1943 and 44 and his death that we had never before known. This was the catalyst that precipitated my fanatic quest for information and men who may have known my Uncle. This search led me to Dr. Kevin Wilson, a committed historian who presides over the 381st Bomb Group Association and whose father was one of the ground crew responsible for keeping the B-17′s flying at the Group’s base in Ridgewell, England. In addition to his gracious support to my research, he led me to the group.
I can’t do justice to the poignant personal war stories that I heard during my time with these men in the reunions of 2009, 2010 or this year, but to not try would defy the degree to which they have touched my life. Each story is worth a book, but space and time prevent such.
For 2 hours we were held in rapt attention by men from the Ridgewell base, 3 of whom were on the first 8th AF raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg…two cities deep in Germany that were home to a major ball bearing plant and a plant producing the lethal Me109 Messerschmitt fighter. With the use of a mechanical speaking device to aid speech diminished by the loss of his vocal chords due to cancer, a wiry Len Spivey held the group spellbound with his stories of successfully navigating crews on this and other perilous bomb missions. Spivey bailed out of his B-17 on the Schweinfurt mission, struck by flak, and was held captive in the German POW camp Stalag Luft III until the end of the war.
Also on the panel were Joe Walters, ball turret gunner on another ill-fated B-17 during the Schweinfurt raid, and his co-pilot Lt. Chapin, frail but participating with his failing memories of the horrible event on August 17, 1943. The last day of the reunion in 2009 was spent at the “Mighty Eighth Museum” in Savannah, Georgia. A large photograph of a young US airman, with coal black hair, and in the grasp of what seemed to be enemy civilians, adorned a prominent place in the museum. In reality this downed airman was in the grasp of the French underground who, in the midst of harrowing contacts with the enemy, protected him for five and a half months as they provided “safe” passage back to Ridgewell. The man in the photograph was one of our reunion group on that day, Joseph Walters, then a frail but energetic gray haired man with a razor sharp recall of his experiences. He was present again this year and extremely sharp in his retelling of the events of this day…even at his advanced age of 98.
Dick Schneider and many others, revealed the almost unbearable conditions the airmen endured in prosecuting the War with their bombing. Minus 60 degree temperatures at 30,000 feet with heated suits that occasionally shorted out and oxygen masks that froze to their faces comprised some of the conditions of 8 hour flights from Ridgewell to Germany and back to their Essex county base.
Every mission was fraught with the terror that emanated from the anti-aircraft fire and flak from German guns and canons. Jim Grey told of the terror of a shell ripping past him without exploding…quite unusual. Flak, or ak-ak as some called it, could be, and often was, lethal to both aircraft and crew. It took the life of my “Uncle Bud” on that cold December day in 1944. To provide rest from the ravages of flak on their emotions, airmen were frequently given respite in flak houses throughout England. And then it was back to business.
Sam Whitehead was once a tall, ramrod straight B-17 pilot who, in the photograph on the front of a book about the Eighth Air Force, walked stridently from his aircraft after a successful mission. Still today he has an ever-present smile on his yet rugged face. Only slightly slowed by the years, he looks like he would still command the respect of his crew as he did 65+ years ago.
With tears that punctuated my feelings, I again told navigator and instructor Bob Angevine what warmth I felt fellow-shipping with him and his wife Bea at dinner much the same as he and my Uncle did when they shared a songbook at church…as was related in one of his letters to my aunt. Herb Kwart told of talking with my Uncle before a mission. Cross referencing flight logs revealed that the briefing could only have occurred on the day of my Uncle’s death.
Bill Palmer served at Ridgewell from its takeover from the RAF in 1943 until its closing in 1945. After the War he served many congregations as a Baptist minister and denominational organizations as their leader. In 2009 he also chronicled his experiences at Ridgewell with two fantastic and detailed scrapbooks of photographs and memorabilia. These treasures attracted the continuous attention of his fellow servicemen and others throughout the reunion. After a serious illness in 2010 he returned this year and celebrated his 90th birthday the last day of the reunion. His detailed documentation will ultimately become a part of the history preserved at the Savannah based museum and will also be available on-line at a new WW2 website I will be launching in the next month or so.
Other than the reminiscing of a few dozen aged airmen and some interested bystanders what does this all mean? We are in a battle for our freedom like none we have faced since WWII. This time the fight is largely on our own shores and arguably within our own government. As a people, we don’t have the committed resolve the Nation had after the events of December 6, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. We are now seeing the freedoms fought for so nobly by the Eighth Air Force among thousands of other service men and women and millions of sacrificial civilians, wrested from our feeble grasp. As was predicted years ago by Soviet dictator Nikita Krushchev, the U.S. is being overtaken from within. Our defenses from those who seek to destroy us, both from within and outside, are being compromised.
The financial cost and lost lives of WWII provided for us the almost unabated freedom we have enjoyed for the 56 years until the attacks of 911 and the almost 10 years since. We must let neither the cost nor the lessons of WWII be lost. “Man Up” America…it’s all on the line!