Sunday, November 06, 2011
Better Than Typical
During WWII, Private Rooney was a London-based writer for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. In that role he lived a safe and comfortable life, but was forever affected by his observations of American soldiers, particularly the Army Air Force airmen. His contemporary writing and post-WWII reminisces involving those aviators were, in my opinion, some of the most insightful words on the subject ever crafted.
Over the years he expressed similar thoughts in a number of published pieces. I particularly liked the chapter in his 1995 memoir, “My War,” in which he told his heartfelt story of the young airmen he had known in WWII England well enough to bring tears. While that chapter is too long to post here, the following introduction Mr. Rooney wrote for a 1981 book entitled, “One Last Look,” is a fine example of his masterful wordsmithing.
By Andy Rooney
London—There’s just so much sentimental baggage you can carry through life. I’m not much for reunions. Anyone who has reached the age of 60 could easily spend the rest of his days just sitting around, remembering.
I’m here at this old U.S. 8th Air Force Base near Bedford, England, though, because members of the 306th Bomb Group are having a reunion and I flew with them on the first U.S. bombing raid on Nazi Germany in February 1943. It’s sentimental baggage I carry easily and with great pride.
It’s been 40-years now since these men flew their four-engined Flying Fortresses out of here. They’re the kind of men Americans like to think are typical Americans, but they’re better than typical. They’re special. A lot of World War II Air Force men are.
It was a terrible war for them although during this reunion they’re managing to recall a lot of the good things about it. It would be too sad if they didn’t. It was terrible because so many of them were killed. One evening they’d be sitting around their huts talking, worrying, playing cards and writing letters home. The next evening, if there had been a bombing mission that day, the bed next to theirs or the one next to that—and maybe both—might be empty, its former occupant, their pal, dead. Perhaps he had gone down in a parachute that caught fire. “Who burned Bailey?” MacKinley Kantor wrote. “Was it you?”
It was a great and terrible war for me because, as a young reporter for the Army newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, I was in a strange position. I came to this base often when the bombers went out, and when they returned—if they returned—I talked to the crews about what had happened. Then I’d return to London and write my story. I often felt ashamed of myself for not being one of them. I was having the time of my life as a newspaperman and they were fighting and dying. That’s how I came to fly with them just that once to Wilhelmshaven. It made me feel better about myself.
Looking out at the crumbling remains of the old runways at this airfield, I’m haunted by flashes of memory. Often the bombers came back badly damaged and with crew members dead or dying. In April 1943, I was here when they came back from a raid deep in Germany and one of the pilots radioed in that he was going to have to make an emergency landing. He had only two engines left and his hydraulic system was gone. He couldn’t let the wheels down and there was something even worse. The ball turret gunner was trapped in the plastic bubble that hung beneath the belly of the bomber.
Later I talked with the crewmen who survived that landing. Their friend in the ball turret had been calm, they said. They had talked to him. He knew what they had to do. He understood. The B-17 slammed down on its belly…and on the ball turret with their comrade inside it.
There are funny stories, too. Everyone here remembers the eccentric gunner Snuffy Smith. Sgt. Maynard Smith. He was an oddball kind of guy, but he did his job well in the air. The Air force loved to give medals and they had good reason in Snuffy Smith’s case. On one occasion, Henry Stimson, then called secretary of war, came to England, and officials, thinking this would be good time for publicity for the Air Force and the secretary, arranged to give Snuffy Smith the Medal of Honor. The whole entourage came to this base with the secretary and a dozen generals, but the hero was nowhere to be found. It turned out he was in the kitchen washing dishes. He was on KP, being disciplined for some minor infraction of the base rules.
This reunion is a bittersweet experience. Last evening I had a drink at the bar where there was a gathering, and a strong-looking weather-beaten man came over and quietly said he’d like to buy me a drink. He’s a Nebraska farmer now. He had been the tail gunner on the Banshee, the B-17 I flew in over Wilhelmshaven. We’d been hit that day and it was a terrifying trip, but it made a good story for me. We laughed and talked together and he paid for the drink. As we lifted our glasses in a mutual toast, I noticed that two fingers on his right hand were missing. It often happened to crewmen who stuck by their guns while their hands froze.
And he was buying me a drink.