You’ve watched the M A S H television series and spent time in “The Swamp”, the tent in Korean.
That was home away from home for those veterans patching up blown away soldiers. Helicoptered in from heavy action on the front fighting lines of the war. A different kind of medicine being administered than the garden variety ailments, aches, pains the doctors would see in their milk toast in comparison practices stateside.
The show’s humor helped cope with the despair of gunshot, mine, artillery shell de-limbing destruction.
The sacrifice. The Bing Crosby “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. Being away from family, home, familiar surroundings. Looking forward to a letter from someone, anyone from your home town. Missing holidays, birthdays, funerals while you helped fight the war for Uncle Sam.
In World War Two’s European Theatre, my Dad had a role in the back seat of a B-24 bomber four engine aircraft. He, the other nine crewmen in the 882nd Bombardment wing of the 15th Army stationed, based near Naples, Italy. Sitting in the back, by himself. Trained in hotter than Hell Brownsville Texas to be a B-24 tail gunner.
Eventually, escorted, settled in Italy where winter weather, living in a canvas tent was all that separated, protected you from the elements. With a temperamental gas heater that was hot and cold so to speak. And at night you worried as you tried to sleep. A lot on your mind. Like the other young men in the flapping in the wind, rain, snow exposed fabric tent.
The morning briefings before the plane full of bomb run, decided if cloud cover weather overhead canceled the flight or not.
Except no free tickets to anywhere you want to go being awarded, handed out if the mission was scrubbed. Because it just meant rescheduled for blue skies in the forecast. And doubling up on the effort to drop bombs over primary and sometimes secondary enemy targets.
Dad was relieved of his third year at the University of Maine at Orono college education when tapped on the shoulder for war service.
He made it home, we won the war and he did go back to finish to get handed a sheepskin for agriculture economics. To put to use back up north in Aroostook County. Burton Tingley, another Houlton Maine boy air dropped into the same Italian airbase turned wrenches.
Burton fixed, plugged shrapnel and bullet holes. Repaired, lubed, refueled, kept them in the air. But when it was a day to go off base, head into town where you could buy anything for a pack of American cigarettes, the pair took the scooter. One of a kind. Made with an engine from an airfield gasoline plane pump, some angled tubular aluminum from a battery storage rack, two tires from a shop tool cart and voila. Cheap transportation to zip the GI’s into happy hour off base.
For a few hours to forget why they were in Italy, what was happening to the world.
And to realize we were all in this together. To win the war, whatever it took. But secretly wondering if each on foreign soil would ever really get back to their home towns safe, sound, in hopefully one piece alive. Not in an American flag draped casket. Sliding around in the back of a cold, dark cargo plane. With rows of containers packed and stacked in red, white and blue just like it.
Dad said daylight bombing was so much more effective than moon lit or pitch black missions. As you studied maps. To figure out the bull’s eye in hitting enemy targets. But scored for high casualty losses of men and planes. A third sent up did not come back.
A sitting duck target at times. For the highly accurate German 88 mm that tried to blow them out of the sky big guns. Usually Western movies splashed on the outdoor drive in theatre we went to as a family with four kids years later in life. But when it was a Twelve O’clock High type film, Dad would say “Oh that is so Hollywood”. Not the way it was for accuracy, but the crowds in the cars ate it up. Did not know the difference.
As the youngest of four, all boys, I remember opening up the safe in the front hall.
In the important papers tucked away protected from fire, an 8″ long, 5″ high, 3″ thick light orange tan case with a top flap hid. Everything from European currencies, 50 caliber brass shell bullets, air medals all tucked inside. In a photo album in the front room, black and whites, pages and pages of Dad’s time spent in Italy.
Dad’s valor job of riding in the back of a four engine plane with bomb bay doors to work each day. Protected by six sets of double 50 mm machine guns with tracer bullets. To light up phosphorus fiery trails to let the shooter know where adjustments are needed. To hit, stop, destroy or at least deter the intended target buzzing all around you.
To protect the gas and bomb loaded bomber. With firing pins removed, stacked and racked load of ordinance that must get delivered. Eight thousand pounds gravity dropped from all of the 1200 horsepower motor droning bomber formation airplanes around you. That each B-24 Liberator copy cost just shy of $300,000, which translates into 4.72 million in today’s dollars. Chewing up 200 gallons of gas an hour without bomb load.
Smiling faces of crew of ten young men in the Liberator B-24 just glad to be on firm ground after a forced bomber landing.
In pencil on the back of album images, in his handwriting “The smiles are real, after ditching the plane at an English coastal base. Waiting four days to be picked up, reassigned another bomber.” Dressed in leather, bomber jackets or full flight suits while doing their part in the war effort. There were not any milk runs, it was baptism by fire during daylight bombing. In an unpressurized plane with 30 below zero weather and the smell of cordite exploding around your flying tin can. Wearing an oxygen mask, flak protection and reciting lots of prayers.
Proud of you Dad on this Veterans Day.
The re-reading of love letters between you and Mom written daily shows what it was like inside. What the country was going through and how expensive freedom really is when men and women go off to fight wars. Veterans Day, it’s everyday. Thank a soldier. They are not just men. My Aunt Hettie was a World War I nurse. A real Florence Nightingale. A blog post for another day.