Category Archives: Oral History

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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Just Listen

I do volunteer work at the Hickory Aviation Museum.  There’s a couple of simple reasons I enjoy it.  One reason is that I’m an airport bum.  Ever since I was a kid watching airplanes take off and land is a source of never-ending pleasure for me.  But the other reason is something I came to by stages.  It keeps me coming back.  It’s the people.

We have a pretty unique bunch of people at the Museum, including a number of old guys who took part in World War II.  Most of them are aviators because that’s our focus, but we’ve got all types, and all have a story to tell if you just learn to listen.

But being around those guys has taught me a lot.  I’ll share some of it with you.

For me, the hardest thing in the world was learning to just listen.  I’m a terrible know-it-all, so why listen?  It took me years to learn the trick of it and I’m still learning, every time I have the chance.  You never learn it all.  Usually you’re taken by surprise.  It starts with just a few words someone says.  The first thing to learn is to understand why those words catch your attention, when it’s just a few words, or a chance to watch a man’s face as he speaks.

My father’s friend Lloyd White was one of those who taught me.  Lloyd flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 9th Air Force in World War II.  He told me about flying ground support missions during the Battle of the Ardennes.  Lloyd was just a little guy with a soft Southern accent.  Maybe it was the contrast, that soft accent, because somehow you could hear the sound of the guns beyond the words.  The very young man that was Lloyd White took fearful chances because, “well, those boys up there with the rifles needed our help.”  Lloyd passed away in 2009.

I saw Robert S. Johnson, one of the great 8th Air Force Thunderbolt aces, watch another gentleman, a former B-17 pilot, tell the story of losing most of his squadron to Luftwaffe fighters.  Bob Johnson slowly, calmly lit a cigarette while he listened.  He never took his eyes from the other man’s face.  The look on Bob Johnson’s face taught me something about listening.  Bob went west in 1998.

There was an older gentleman who worked at the same FBO I did, thirty years ago, who told me about his last mission flying a B-17 in the Pacific.  The airplane was badly damaged by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft.  He and everyone else on his crew were wounded.  The last thing he remembered was lining up on final.  What outfit was he with?  What airfield was he landing on?  What was the target, the date?  Who were his other crew members?  I’ll never know that now.  Just, “somewhere in the Pacific, back during the war.”

And simply to list names of World War II vets means nothing.  One ended up flying cargo all his life and stopped logging flight time after 35,000 hours.  Another flew 40 missions with the 8th Air Force as a navigator.  Others flew B-26 Marauders over Europe, or B-24s with the 15th Air Force out of Italy.  Art Sulteen, who is no longer with us, flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 8th Air Force.  They all have or had war stories.

It took me a long time to understand that “war stories” are jewels beyond price.  But by the time I learned to listen, to be quiet and really listen, and to know enough about history and aviation to fill in the blanks and ask the right questions, there weren’t so many war stories around.  Not the first-hand stories told by the guys who were there, who did that, where you can look in their faces and their eyes when they talk about how it was over Berlin or Tokyo or Schweinfurt or Rabaul or over the Hump.  If you know what to look for you can see the young man still there, below and among the wrinkles of age, because memory brings that young man back for just a little while.  The old geezers themselves know this.  They never feel as young as when they are among themselves, swapping stories about life the way it was.

Something else you must learn.  Those old geezers feel no one understands them, and that no one believes their stories.  Mostly that’s why they stopped telling stories, except among themselves, when they don’t have to justify something as true or not because the other person knows enough to judge for themselves.

So you must learn to understand what it is that you see and hear, what is being offered to you for free, because the price was paid long ago and not by you, sitting there safe and warm and well fed, doing nothing but listening.  Even then listening isn’t always a comfortable place, not if you listen with the proper frame of mind.  Not if you can put yourself in their place, just for an instant, even in the smallest way, and just listen.

Take the opportunity if you can and while you can.  And remember, if you’re ever around an airport with a bunch of old geezers swapping what they might call lies and/or war stories, that there are ghosts standing among them — the ghosts of the ones who didn’t grow old.  The ones who didn’t come back.

They too have a story to tell.  It’s in the silence between the words of the war stories.

Just listen.

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