Category Archives: Oral History

Like Looking Through a Window

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s documentary film “They Shall Never Grow Old” you should do so. In many ways it might be one of the most incredible films I’ve ever seen.

The film takes archival footage from the Imperial War Museum and BBC oral history interviews with World War I veterans to tell the story of soldiers in the Royal Army during World War I. Jackson chose this point of view for a look in depth at one aspect of the history of the war, and one may easily imagine a monumental documentary series done in the same fashion consisting of who knows how many episodes, covering different campaigns and services. The Royal Navy and the Royal Flying Corps are not mentioned, and I’d purely love to see the same treatment given to the RFC!

Everyone has seen the silent black-and-white film taken during the war. It tends to be grainy, either over- or under-exposed, scratched, jerky, and the motion of people looks awkward and hurried. The latter is due to the frame rate imposed by hand-cranked cameras in use at the time, which might be cranked at anywhere between ten frames a second or eighteen.

Jackson and his production team took the original film and processed it so that the original black and white appears very close to something that would have been shot as B&W with contemporary methods. The images are clean, crisp, properly exposed, and move at a frame rate restoring natural motion.

That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

However, the colorization process resulted in something positively unique. I’m going to say nothing more about it. You simply must see the film.

All of that, however, is as nothing beside the use of imagery to tell a story, and I will give one example. The series of images with the soldiers in the Sunken Lane prior to the Battle of the Somme will rend your heart. The images are clear enough that you can see the emotion on those faces. You may think you know what to expect in terms of fear and apprehension and even excitement, but that’s knowledge without experience.

These faces are right in front of you, almost as if you were looking through a window and not watching a film. And, as Peter Jackson points out, most of the lads in that picture were probably dead within an hour after it was taken.

One further thing among many deserves mention. The interviewees make the point that after the war, the people on the home front didn’t want to hear from the veterans what it was like. I think it would be interesting to know why that’s so, because to me it seems short-sighted, if only from the perspective of ignoring history. An experience in history paid with so much blood and suffering and waste and destruction should be told and retold and examined from every angle. It was called “the war to end all wars” and so it should have been. We all know it was not, and in fact was followed within a generation by another war even more terrible in all respects.

We owe it to those who were there to hear and understand, as best we are able, their story. Peter Jackson has given us a unique opportunity to do exactly that.

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Filed under Oral History, Uncategorized, witness to war

A Friend Is Gone

When I got back from a long sojourn out of town I found out that a friend, Col. John Parker, USAF-Ret., had died.

A few years back John told me he wanted to live to be at least 102, because then he and his two brothers would all be over 100 years old. John was, I think, 97 years old, and if you live through 33 missions over Germany and a lively career in the USAF which included service in Vietnam, living into your late 90s ain’t bad.

In the time I was privileged to spend with John I learned to always carry a voice recorder. John would tell stories that started from the here-and-now but then, with no more transition than a sentence or two, would take you into his seat at the navigator’s table of his B-17, guiding the bomber to a target in Germany with flak exploding all around. Sometimes it could take your breath away and make your hair stand on end, to be sitting with this little, quiet guy, telling you in his soft, matter-of-fact voice about seeing the lead bomber take a hit from flak and start burning. And that would happen right beside you, and the seventy years distance in time fell away.

I hope I captured a little of that, because now that direct line to the past is gone. That’s part of my mourning for John’s passing.

Because it can be quite an education, being around someone like John Parker. Little bits and pieces of the past, of how it was, would simply be there for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to listen. And there’s something about those guys who served in World War Two that was hard to put your finger on, for all it was there.

Maybe because that time was still with them, still part of their lives, who they were.

Like the time I thought I’d have to keep John out of a fist-fight with another old codger. See, once upon a time we had a lot of WW2 guys at the Hickory Aviation Museum, and one of them was named Bob Morgan. (Bob would be quick to tell you he wasn’t THAT Bob Morgan. You know, the “Memphis Belle” guy.) Bob was special in his own right. He logged 37,000-odd hours flying cargo and charter after being in Air Transport Command (ATC) during the war, flying, among other things, the Curtiss C-46 over the Hump to China. That wasn’t safe duty. Losses to weather and terrain on the Hump run were pretty much the same as in flying combat.

So when Bob Morgan met John Parker the first time they shook hands and had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, went something like this:

BOB: Well, John, you look like you were old enough to be there. What did you do?

JOHN: Me? Navigator. Eighth Air Force. You?

BOB: ATC.

JOHN (innocently): ATC? Oh, Allergic To Combat?

And Bob’s face got red and his teeth gritted, and after 60+ years that wartime gibe stung to the point where I thought Bob would take a poke at John, and I found myself repressing laughter and getting ready to step between them if I had to.

Here’s the thing: John wasn’t a big guy, maybe five-five, with big ears and a resemblance to the cartoon character Sad Sack. Bob wasn’t all that big, but he was a good bit bigger than John.

And not that Bob wasn’t a tough old bird.

It’s just that I know who I would’ve bet on to finish that fight.

Bet on, without thinking about it.

But John is gone, and the world diminished by his passing.

I miss him.

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Filed under Oral History, Uncategorized, World War II

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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Filed under Aviation, Oral History, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Aviation, Oral History, Writing