Thursday, April 14, 2011

Good-bye, Pop

I never met Pop except by mail, yet I had heard his name nearly all my life. He was a 25-year old Army pilot for a while and a small town doctor a lot longer. Pop was one of about 250,000 young men who flew Army Air Force planes into battle in the skies over Europe and elsewhere during WWII. Thousands of his fellow pilots and their crews didn’t come home, but Pop and his crew did.

Pop was very special to me because he flew the B-17s that carried my father aboard in the nose as one of the crew and brought him home safely. Had he failed to do that I might not have come into existence. He was a favorite comrade of my father’s and they remained life-long friends until Dad passed away some years ago.

They weren’t shot down, but they did have several forced landings due to damage and one flak shell passed through their wing on its way to explode at a higher altitude. Otherwise, their tour of missions in the weeks before D-Day was without event. However, 43 planes in their particular 60-plane unit were shot down during those same weeks; 430 young men lost.

Lost, they always said. Whether they were killed or captured was never known for quite a time after a mission and even then the Germans only reported those that were taken prisoner—about half of them. The rest…MIA, most of them were actually KIA, but that was never reported at the time.

Shortly after Dad died, I wrote Pop a letter asking him to tell me about my father as a young man. Dad was always Dad to me, the big guy who not only nurtured and protected me, but could also get awfully angry with me; yes, and me with him. I never knew him as a kid, but Pop did. Dad always seemed a bit na├»ve to me, especially as our new world started blossoming into what it would become during the sixties…flower power and all. Pop confirmed my observation.

He didn’t write a letter…his hands were too shaky. So, he made me a tape and spoke on a variety of topics for most of an hour. What a treasure. I’ve come to love all these men, but especially this one. My friend Pop died last December at age 92, the last surviving member of Dad’s crew.

God bless you old friend…say Hi to Dad for me.

Many of them looked like children when they first went to war, and some of them no doubt could have been called children. Veteran pilot Ernest K. Gann encountered many of them at Goose Bay, Labrador, on their way to England, and saw, as he wrote in his classic book Fate is the Hunter, earnest young men with peach fuzz beards…brave aerial children who would go down in flame and history as the Eighth Air Force.” But because aerial warfare is, to say the least, a ripening experience, once they flew a few combat missions they were children no longer. As Gann put it, “the innocence was gone from their eyes.” In age, however, they were still absurdly young and but little removed from childhood. Most were in combat before the age of twenty-two; some, such as gunner Miller, were as young as seventeen, and the few graybeards among them who were twenty-five or older were known more often than not to their fellow crewmembers as “Dad” or “The Old Man,” ...or, Pop.

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