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Thursday, July 03, 2008

His name is Don

He was a B-17 ball turret gunner. What he did was called "flying the ball". It, along with the tail gunner position were considered to be the most dangerous positions for the B-17 air crew.
His completed tour was supposed to be 25 missions that were upped to 30. But, he was shot down and served as a POW (prisoner of war). When being transported , the train he was on was strafed and jumped the tracks. Trains were considered "targets of opportunity" for fighters and it was not uncommon for American fighters to strafe POW trains as they were usually unmarked. He and a few other POW's, on seeing that they weren't being guarded after the derailing, took off and walked for five days, without food, and crossed the border into Switzerland where he was interred for the rest of the war.
He flew B-29's in the Pacific after being liberated in Europe, then flew B-52's.
I met Don at the Wednesday lunches for the 8th Air Force Historical Society, a group of many WWII vets including, but not limited to air and ground crew from the 8th, 15th, 9th, 12th, 7th and 20th Air Forces. We also have Navy and Marine ground and air personnel from the PTO. We also have vets from Korea, Vietnam, first Gulf War and now the second. And we have hanger-ons like me.
A couple of years ago Don was too ill to drive, so he asked me if I would pick him up for the lunches. Of course. I can't refuse a vet. How could I?
Well, I heard a bit of a different story about Don's career as a POW as we drove to Bloomington. He told me that he and a few others were fairly dissatisfied with their treatment in the Stalag. And he commented that the cuisine left much to be desired next to Mom's meatloaf. So, he said "We decided to leave. They weren't treating as nicely as we thought they should, and we heard the food was better in Switzerland. So, that's where we went." It was only later that I heard about his being on a POW train that was strafed.
And of course there was another story that took the entire twenty minutes on our second drive.
After Don was liberated, he got orders to report to California. He flew to, I believe, San Francisco. His next orders were to report to Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor. His next orders were to report to, again I believe, the Philippines. In all these orders he was never told the end point.
On that the far Pacific airbase he was told which officer to report to. The officer told him to suit up, which he did. Don, being an enlisted man, learned early on never to question orders or officers (who usually gave orders). Don suited up, was driven out to the flight line and was told to board one of these bad boys:

It's a Northrup P-61 Black Widow. And off to combat they flew. In combat, the pilot's screaming at Don "There's a Zero. Shoot the bastard!!!!" "Sergeant, what the hell's wrong with you? They're Japs all over the place and you haven't shot a single round!!! What the (very strong expletive here staring with 'F') are you doing?!?!?" Don's reply "I've never been trained as a P-61 gunner. Only a B-17 gunner!" Oops. Seems that some REMF (Rear Echelon Mother [Same expletive as before] military slang for someone behind the lines) had seen that Don went to gunnery school, was a combat experienced air crew gunner, and off he was ordered to the Pacific. To be the gunner on a P-61. Ain't the military bureaucracy grand?
Don flew B-29's afterwards,where his experience was much more relevant. And he was much happier. And the B-29 pilot didn't scream at him with nearly as much vigor (or as much colorful language) as did the P-61 driver. I failed to ask if the Air Force food was better than Swiss victuals. An oversight on my part, but a question for which Don would have had a wry answer.
Don had been in failing health over the past few years. He had gone from being old to being frail as are more and more of my WWII friends. He was on oxygen.
About two weeks ago Don fell and broke his hip. Rushed to the hospital Don was successfully operated on. All pinned up and on the mend Don was cracking wise with the hospital staff. But there was clot from the surgery. It broke loose,went to his heart and killed him.
His funeral service was Tuesday.
One of the members of his POW group led the prayer. He talked about our liberating God. How He liberated Moses and the enslaved Israelites. How He liberated Daniel from the lions' den. Liberated the three Israelites from the fiery furnace, the Israelites from Babylon and Paul and Peter from prison. Liberated Jesus from the grave. Liberated me from the consequences of my sins and my self-purchased first class one-way ticket for an eternal trip to hell.
Seems that the only acceptable currency for the purchase of liberty is blood. For us and our sins, it's the Blood of Jesus. For the luxury and liberty of being able to write, in English, and read this small memorial to Don, in the greatest nation on earth, the currency was and is the blood of soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen.
The blood of Don's brothers-in-arms.
And I feel the emptiness in my chest from missing him already.
So, go out and honor Don and others by fighting for liberty. Don and all those brothers-in-arms of his who risked all their tomorrows so we could have today.
Celebrate what he and millions of others fought and many died for.
Happy 4th of July.
By the way, here is a picture of Don and his air crew. Don is in the back row, third from the right.


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