To End an Era

Twenty years ago I met this old guy at an air show. He looked like the kind of guy you picture as a grandfather, a sweet benign smile that lit up his eyes, soft-spoken, white hair where he had any hair left on his head. Wrinkles. Age spots. Thick glasses.

He had his log of missions flown in World War II. Turns out he was a flight engineer / upper turret gunner with the 2nd Bomb Group, 15th AF.

“That’s when I shot down an ME-109,” he said, pointing to the date written in the log. He was the only veteran assigned to a new crew. The other gunners used the wrong lubrication on their weapons, and their guns jammed up as a result. He, however, knew the proper way to lubricate his machine guns so they’d operate in the severe cold of the stratosphere where the 2nd Bomb Group flew their missions. “Boy, after that, my crew thought I walked on water.”

Then he told me about the “Last Man Club.” Local veterans of World War One started it. There was a prize for the last man still alive of the original group. I don’t remember what it was. Maybe it was a bottle of brandy, or champagne. Maybe they all contributed to a fund. The point was, it went to the last man. The last man who remembered going over the top at Chateau-Thierry or Belleau Wood. What that was like.

A good friend of mine, Brad Kurlancheek, sent me a link to a story about the Doolittle Raiders and their version of the Last Man Club, which inspired this post. Here’s the link; it’s well worth a look.

http://www.history.com/news/one-final-toast-for-the-doolittle-raiders

Richard E. Cole, who served as Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the last man living who remembers what it was like to take off in a B-25 from the pitching deck of the USS Hornet, April 18, 1942.

The image that struck me the most from that article was the picture of the silver cups the surviving Raiders used to toast each other during their reunions. When one of the Raiders died, they turned his cup over.

Now only Richard Cole’s cup is left. The last man. All the other cups belonging to all the other Raiders have been turned over.

To me there’s something poignant in that image. Who, after all, gets to turn over Cole’s cup? Imagine being the one appointed. You aren’t a Raider, but for some reason — maybe because you are the eldest surviving child of a Raider — you’re chosen to perform the ceremony, because make no mistake, that’s what it is, a ceremony. In the simple act of turning over a silver cup, you perform something mundane and earth-changing at the same time. You end an era. The last living link to that morning, April 18, 1942, is severed. After that, history consists of silver cups, turned upside down. Those upside-down silver cups will be an exhibit in a museum. People walk by and look at them and wonder what all the fuss is about, and why those guys decided to have those cups made. Why those guys wanted to remember that morning when America was losing the war, and they volunteered to be at the very tip of the spear America would build over the next three years to hurl against Japan.

At another air show, twenty years ago, I had the chance to shake hands with a man who was part of that spear. I got his autograph, and I shook his hand and thanked him. Just a simple, normal handshake, a courtesy you perform without thinking.

Only the man was Thomas Ferebee, bombardier on the Enola Gay, and the hand I shook was the one on the bombsight, August 6, 1945, over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

A man, or a silver cup turned upside down; and a link to history, that whispers to you, whose message you must make the effort to hear, to really listen to that whispering.

Listen. Just listen.

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1 Comment

Filed under Aviation, Oral History, Uncategorized

One response to “To End an Era

  1. Great post – it speaks much for the intensity of experience that comrades in arms went through that, so often, they retain their connections with each other unto death, decades later. A decade or so ago, I published a war biography of Lt-Gen Bernard ‘Tiny’ Freyberg – and started fielding calls from old soldiers, all of whom introduced themselves as ‘I’m one of Tiny’s men’ – this 60 years after the end of WW2. There’s also the extraordinary story of 28 (Maori) Battalion, a unit fielded 1940-45 at Maori suggestion. The battalion was used as an elite combat force, and their sense of cameraderie was second to none. After the war the 28 (Maori) Battalion Association remained strong right up until 2012, by which many of the old soldiers had died, and just a handful were left who took the decision to formally wind it up. Nobody wanted to be the last one. The battalion is hugely important in New Zealand’s history – not just military but generally – and there are statutory protections relative to use of its emblems and name.

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